Sunday, July 26, 2015

A Philosophical Approach to Silence

I wrote the following text as a public note in my concert program of my compositions at Kid Ailack Hall in Tokyo the other day. I did not add any modifications since then. I wrote the note rather in a hurry, so there might be some parts that are difficult to understand or were not quite written with the right words. As for these issues, I would like to write more to explain better in the future.

In general, I probably prefer to raise an issue rather than trying to find the answer to the solution. I am not a kind of person who likes to deepen a thought based on some particular idea or system. If you read my note, you may have an impression that I simply arranged casual thoughts that I hit on. That is understandable. To be honest, I would like to leave in-depth discussions to other people.

- Taku Sugimoto (November 11, 2005)


About Philosophy of Silence

I often hear people saying that my music that is full of intervals and gaps of silence must be just an adaptation of John Cage's works. If I composed my works with more normal musical notes instead of so much silence (that is exactly the thing most composers are doing - rehashing of predecessors' old ideas), then people may not say that. Since there is a rest in a series of musical notes, some people may say that I could simply use the rests instead of silence. But that is a different issue. If there is a long series of hundreds or thousands of rests without musical notes, the part will be considered as a silence in most cases. And if the silence part lasts for hundreds or thousands of measures, the part will be torn off from the structure of music consequently, and the listeners' ears could be shifted to focus on the environmental sounds naturally. But this is just the natural sequence of events, and was not what John Cage had in his mind.

Then, what was silence to Cage? To put it simply, I guess it was 'unintentional sound'. Then, what is unintentional sound? This question seems to be quite contemporary, because I think that the current situation in the music tends to involve sounds that are hard to tell whether they're intentional or unintentional just from listening to the sound itself. 

As Radu Malfatti also mentioned before, the idea of 'Silence = Unintentional Sound' had existed even before Cage started to give meaning to it, and the idea still exists now. However, the concept of 'silence' that had already existed before Cage clearly started to change in a particular field of music. How it has changed is the very interesting issue concerning the contemporary sense of 'silence' that we are facing now.

From the present point of view, if a performer does not play his/her instrument for a certain duration in a certain situation, that can be considered to be his/her intention to let the listeners start to listen to the environmental sounds (or to make the situation where environmental sounds can be heard naturally). If the performer plays 4'33" and the audience knows the concept of the piece, there will be a consensual situation where people listen to unintentional sounds in silence. But in this situation, the 'unintentional sounds' are actually intended by incorporating the silent space into the music intentionally.

Spaces are controlled by performers to some extent. Otherwise, (it may sound odd but) the piece will not come into existence. In fact, when a performer is going to play this kind of music, he/she has to consider the environmental sounds and the noises from the audience (today's definition of 'silence' must be this) as predictable factors to some extent. Normally, silent music is performed in this way on the premise I mentioned above. The situation might not be perfectly controlled, but genuine 'unintentional sound' does not exist in this situation either. How about in a different situation? Would it be possible to play 4'33" on a stage where musicians are playing some other music? If a musician plays 4'33" in the middle of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra playing Beethoven, I guess that the part might be still considered nothing but a part of Beethoven's piece even if the musician insists that it was 4'33". However, this resembles in the above-mentioned case, in the sense that the originally so-called 'unintentional sound' was already included within a predictable range of events to some extent. That is, there are so many ways to play Beethoven, and these different ways are all considered to be within a predictable range. Conversely, to play 4'33" in the middle of Beethoven can be considered to be the similar event as the environmental sounds in a point where the event was not controlled with100% confidence. This consequence would also be inevitable when a performer is playing sounds using an instrument. It is just a matter of degree. Whether it is the sound of Beethoven's piece, or the environmental sounds, or the sound of an instrument, there is no big difference in the point that the performer has a rough sketch (plan) in mind in advance. (If so, isn't it possible to consider that Beethoven's music has the silence - although we will face an obstacle in this idea to overcome.) And will the unintentional listening become possible if we get rid of the sketch/plan from our minds?

When we are listening to a particular piece, the only thing that could determine whether it is 4'33", or Beethoven's music, or some simple daily life sounds is the title of the music. However, I doubt that it was just due to an ideological difference. If the concept of 'unintentional listening' can only function relatively, and if the concept is related to all the complicated processes of recognition, everything can be regarded as a silence, and vice versa.

Well, after writing the preface like this, I would like to add my tentative conclusion below. After that, I will just continue to write with vigor.

First of all, as long as any kind of sound could be intentional or unintentional, it will differ depending on the context whether it should be regarded as a silence or not. I think that the sound itself does not contain the information to be judged (if it is regarded as a silence or not) any more.

Next, there is another issue: "Is it really necessary for us to analyze whether a particular sound could be a silence or not when listening to music or thinking about music?" I would like to express my standpoint on this question as clear as I can.

There is of course a legitimate opinion that whether the sound should be regarded as a silence or not, and whether it is intentional or unintentional, are not big issues. The only thing that would matter is 'sound' when we appreciate music, and how it should be recognized is not important. Well, that might be true. It is hard to argue with it, but as my simple question, is it really possible for a listener to 'just listen to the sound as a simple sound'? If that is possible, that means this way of listening is exactly the unintentional relation to the sound in a true sense. If so, every sound could be regarded as something not worth bothering about (or a trivial matter). Can music exist if this is the case? Music has been developed as a complex relationship of sounds and something besides sounds. That is how music should be. It is clearly a different issue whether a sound can exist just as a sound or not, and whether we can recognize it as a sound or not.

I doubt if we could simply say that one particular sound is more significant than other sounds. Is an E note more special than a D note? Is the start-up sound of a computer more interesting than the sound of rain? If it were possible for us to hear sound in such a simple manner, any of these sounds would not be more than any other sound. When we listen to a series of sounds, aren't we evaluating the information each sound delivers in relation with other elements? I think that every sound - like an E note, the start-up sound of a computer or the sound of rain - obtains a nature as a unique sound by its relations with each other. The identity of the sound must be formed on the basis of the common understanding of the sound to some extent. 

If we define a particular sound that has a particular pitch as the sound that contains a corresponding frequency, we can mathematically prove the fact that (for example) a C note can be in harmony with an E note and a G note by comparing the frequencies of the three. This data can be trusted in regard to the consonance of sounds, but when perceiving consonance phenomena as sensuous impressions, can this sensuous value be absolute? Conceivably, the fact that the notes C, E and G are consonant with each other could be an incidental event. There might have been a chance that these three notes would not be regarded as the consonant sounds or a chord or the sounds with pitches. There might also have been a possible chance that some completely different set of notes - whatever it was - became the consonant sounds, which could have been proved to be consonant mathematically by means of some different method (or could be the same method in a narrow sense) of reading the frequencies. If that had happened, the music would be a completely different form as it is now. Perhaps within the possibilities, some new form of expression that is not regarded as music today could be included, and it might not be impossible to perform a stunt to aggressively insist that this is music. But in order to justify this statement, we need a common concept on what can be defined as music as an initial  premise. In fact, the notes C, E and G are considered to be consonant sounds in the premise we share today, and the other sets of notes that have no relation with each other do not gain important positions in today's world of consonant sounds. That is because any thought experiment regarding music has to be carried out using the foundation of the present situation of music. On the other hand, the aggressive statement, to insist that some form of expression can be regarded as music even when it seems far away from the conventional form of music, naturally derives from the current situation surrounding the music. It should be possible enough to recognize a particular sound as something different from how it was identified in the past.   

However, if some particular sound - whatever it is, like the start-up sound of a computer or the sound of rain, anything can be substituted for that - can be perceived as something different from how it used to be identified, what does that mean? If a particular sound can be something else while holding its original identity, we could simply give a new name to it. For example, we could say, 'The sound of rain is the C note'. This is not so absurd.

I am fascinated with the idea that the context of a sound can be displaceable with different contexts, while the sound keeps its original identity. It is not quite the same meaning as the diversity of interpretation, as it's often referred to.

I will give a specific example, my album 'Live in Australia'. This is supposed to be my music recorded at my concert. The reason why this album is considered to be so is because I claimed so, and a certain system accepted that. But in a different context, it can be perceived as something else while holding the same contents of the sounds. For example, this concert was recorded by an Australian musician, Matthew Earle, so this album could be regarded as his field recording work that he has recorded in a certain situation. For him, my concert could have possibly been a performed 'silence' in my concert situation, and he could have possibly released the recording of the silence under the title of 4'33". Or it might have also been possible that some composer gave him a score on which the composer's direction was written as "Record a certain situation". Or there might have been a musician (or it could have been me) who plays a CD at his concert, and this was a record of him playing the full-length version of my album 'Live in Australia'. These examples show that it would be almost impossible for the listener to judge whose music it is - or what it is - from simply listening to the sounds whatever the music is.

Furthermore, the issue whether some recorded material has strictly held to the original sounds or not should depend on the context. For example, the claim that the sound quality of a MP3 file is bad should be made on the presupposition that it is reproduced sound of a recording. But if the same MP3 file was played as a part of some musician's performance, it is not right to criticize the bad sound quality of the MP3 file (which contains the same content as the previous case) recorded at the live concert. In these cases, both MP3 files have exactly the same sound quality. When people hear some sound and judge that it has poor sound quality, the judgment must only derive from the listener's experience of listening to the same music with a different context in a superior condition surrounding the music.

Some music is closely connected to a certain context. The reason why Beethoven's pieces sound like Beethoven, or the environmental noises sound like nothing but environmental noises, may be related to this fact. This makes it possible for us to appreciate music naturally. We can say the same thing as to silence. But isn't it too easy for us to regard contemporary silence as the currently generalized idea of  silence? Isn't it too simple to determine that 'silence' is equal to 'unintentional sounds'? Perhaps the silence in Cage's time might have been unintentional, but in this present time, I think that the silence can be also regarded as something intentional. More likely, the silence has been used easily with some intention these days. 

To go back to the initial subject, I would like to think about silence and the musical rest in sheet music. When we listen to music in a normal situation, we do not regard the rest as silence when the rest appears in a certain pattern between the notes. For example, when quarter notes and quarter rests alternate in the music, or when a whole note rest is repeated for a rather long time, these rests will be recognized as a part of a certain pattern. In both cases, or in most conventional music, the rests are necessary materials in the structure of the music. But when we feel we are experiencing a certain pattern in the music, the experience is restricted within a range in which the notes and the rests are associated with each other in certain patterns. Logically, the length of a quarter note can be one second or even one hour, so we could claim and understand the music has a certain pattern, even in an extreme situation where a one-hour rest follows a one-hour continuous note. However, is the silence during the one-hour rest always the same? Of course, nothing is different in an audio point of view. But when a certain context is predominant, if we replace it with some other context, there will be some change in our recognition. This change of our recognition must influence at least somewhat how we listen to the music.

What if a long rest part is actually not a rest? If a long continuous note is supposed to be a rest (for example, if the continuous noises are coming from the refrigerator in the room), and if a long rest that is regarded as a rest with no sound is filled with almost inaudible sounds that a musician plays in a certain musical rhythm (in this case, if the sounds are almost inaudible, it would not matter if the musician is playing some sounds or not), our listening attitudes will be different. Whether we listen to the rest or the silence assuming that it is the rest or the silence will definitely change our mental attitude toward the music. It will differ depending on whether it is a rest or silence. With this theory, there might be a chance that the sound will stop being the same or stop holding its identity (this may be in contradiction with what I wrote before, but if the identity of the sound itself is formed on our recognition, it would be possible.)

The various issues I raised here may show that the concept of silence needs to be revised (reconsidered) in this contemporary time. In the shadow of the long path since Cage, there have been countless trials and experiments and debates, all of which led us to new findings and new possibilities in the history of music. For this reason, it is necessary to practice some actual music in which one-hour notes alternate with one-hour rests with various viewpoints. After this point, a new issue will emerge naturally. This does not mean that there should not be an old concept of the silence. There will still be the situation where the usual operations of the most notes (or directly dealing with some sounds) including the rests are sufficient enough to compose music. Of course there will be unusual attempts to make music from now on, too. But beyond that, I think it is now about time to bring a reinvention to our ways of recognition. This reinvention will come from the issue of how to face the silence in this contemporary time. It is a result from Cage's idea of silence, which has developed more intricately than his original contemplation - which should be a blessing to us.

(Translation by Yuko Zama, July 2015)

(originally posted on the Improvised Music from Japan site in Japanese in December 2005:

Monday, February 28, 2011

malfatti/rowe interview

in November 2010, Keith Rowe and Radu Malfatti met at Amann Studios in Vienna, where they played together for the first time ever in their lengthy careers. both musicians have extremely strong opinions and perspectives, sometimes conflicting and sometimes agreeing with the other. over the course of the week, many fascinating discussions were held, and at the end of the three days of recordings, I asked the two if they'd be OK answering a few questions. all of us were a bit on the tired side, having just finished recording three CDs of widely varying material in about a 48 hour period, and so this shouldn't be regarded as any kind of in-depth interview, but more a version of what you might have heard if you sat at our table in the cafe next door to Amann in between recordings.--Jon Abbey

Abbey: So, both of you guys have been involved with the world of free improvisation to different degrees for four decades or more. Why originally improvised music and not composed music?

Rowe: I think, in my case I was ill-equipped or non-equipped to perform music from scores. Because what I do actually in some respects has very little to do with music as we know it. I mean, the process on the table is the process from painting, from the plastic arts, everything on the table is justified primarily by visual arts. So, though I did in life later actually study music, I didn't at that point where I started to play, improvisation was the only open avenue.

Malfatti: It's true, it's the same for me really. First point, I'm not well enough equipped to perform the so-called composed music, whatever that is. I mean, not classically, not contemporary, but I started off with Dixieland and that was what interested me the most. I played some stupid pop songs of the fifties on accordion or something, and then I heard Dixieland on the radio and I thought like "wow, what is this? fantastic!".

Abbey: When was that around?

Malfatti: I must have been, I don't know, 10, 11, 12. Which was almost unheard of in Austria, in Innsbruck, and it was kind of an avant-garde feeling. So I was interested in that, and that carried on for a very long time, and only after that, when I started to hear Anton Webern, for instance, which you have to in Austria, then suddenly there was a world of music, which, I mean "wow". Like the first time I heard Dixieland, "wow, what is this? fantastic!". The first time I heard Monk, I thought "this is horrible but so fascinating", I was like a bit scared and I was like "who is this guy? I have to get more."

And the things I am doing now, with this Wandelweiser group, again, it's not the classical, well-trained, obvious virtuoso people who are doing this kind of music and this is as fascinating as when I heard Monk for the first time. And I tried to play like Monk, I tried to play like JJ Johnson, I tried to play like Jack Teagarden, I tried to play even like Kid Ory, and it never happened, of course, you know, because I am a white Tyrolean (chuckles). But basically I agree with Keith, it's the same reason.

Abbey: The followup is for Radu, which you just touched on a little bit, what specifically changed for you around 1990 (or whatever year it was), when you withdrew from the improvising scene, and moved into Wandelweiser and the group of people that you've been a part of ever since?

Malfatti: First of all, it didn't start in the nineties, it started actually before. And I think it is the fact that I found that so-called improvised music came to a halt, a stagnation in evolution and it became very very idiomatic, I found. And there were certain things that are not allowed, because you are "free".

Abbey: When do you feel like you felt that for the first time? What year do you think that was?

Malfatti: I don't know, you can't put it down on like Friday morning or something. I don't know, must be early nineties somehow. I can't put a finger on it, but it was an organic evolution for myself, "why is that not allowed?". Actually I even talked to John Butcher about it, with 'News from the Shed', you must know when that happened?

Abbey: 1989, I want to say.

Malfatti: OK, yeah, yeah. And he was very young at that time and we were talking about it, because in improvisation with 'News from the Shed', we quite liked to play unison, long notes in unison. And then, once I said, "you know, it's very interesting, it's such a wonderful sound and it seems you're not afraid of playing the same note and I don't seem to be afraid", and he said a fantastic thing. He said "yeah, the first generation, they seem to be afraid of the obvious." I thought it was very nice.

So, gradually, you know. And then I had this orchestra, this 13 piece Ohrkiste, and I was working with them already and I still wanted to work with the improvisers because they were not only close friends but also I liked their images and language. But what I tried to introduce was things which were exactly that, things which were not allowed in free improvisation, to actually do something and build something up, and then everybody comes in at the same time doing a certain thing. And, that made me a lot of enemies actually from the improvising scene.

And then more and more and more I came to a certain point where I knew, I knew what I didn't want to do anymore, but I didn't exactly know what I wanted to do. So, you might know this concert in Italy with Gunter Schneider and Burkhard Stangl? And we did a trio improvisation, and I was talking to myself, thinking, which I normally don't do, and I said "Why are you doing this? You don't want to do it anymore". And at home, I didn't, but then on stage, the familiar situation, boom, I went straight back into my old clichés. And I didn't want to do it anymore. So I went home and I wrote a piece for myself where I left all the things out. I didn't want to but on stage, I still fell into it. And the first time I played this piece in public, it was hard, it was so hard.

Abbey: Is this the solo piece on the Wandelweiser CD?

Malfatti: Exactly. But that changed again, in the first version there was still much more which I had to rub out. But, because I had the notes, and I wanted to play what's there and every now and then I felt "now I would like to do this", but then I told myself "no, you cannot." So that was a very interesting fight against my own routine, which I'm very interested in.

So that's why I love to talk about today, much more than what happened in the past.

Abbey: Keith, you answered this somewhat already, but I know that you're a student and a lover of many eras of classical music history. So why, even going forward past the beginnings in the sixties, past when you studied with Michael Graubart, why have you chosen to express yourself almost entirely via improvised music, and maybe more interestingly, is this something you've found yourself questioning in recent years?

Rowe: I mean, improvised music, I go along with the term, because I don't actually have another term for it. I actually don't like the term "improvised music" very much. I think that if I'm honest there was a period where I thought maybe it was a legitimate term and maybe I could see what my dear friend Eddie Prevost meant and he was probably quite right at one point to actually emphasize improvisation's importance and its quality, because it was not recognized. So I think to give it some kind of recognition, some kind of status, rather than "well, it's only improvised", it's something that was very important at a point.

But I would say for the last 20 or 30 years, you would very rarely catch me using the word, but I'm forced to use it in a way, because I don't think I have another term.

Do I question it? Yeah, of course. Of course, because I know emotionally and intellectually why for me, the guitar had to be laid flat on the table, to be detached from myself. I understand, I didn't copy it from someone, I really understand that process. And in a way that process runs directly opposite to the conventional way of thinking on how you should play the guitar, how you approach the guitar, and then consequently what music comes from it. So driving me since I was in my late teens, driving the agenda towards more and more and more abstraction, reduction and abstraction, reduction and abstraction, it's who I am, it's what I am. And I know it from those standpoints, I know it from music, but I also know it from visual arts, and philosophy.

That doesn't answer the question, does it? (chuckles)

Abbey: You've both obviously been invigorated and inspired by the younger generation of Tokyo musicians. Can you each talk a little bit about that, how initial contact with their work affected you, and how you think your ongoing collaborations and contact with them has changed your own approach?

Malfatti: Hmm, it's an interesting question. I don't know, I don't know, did they influence me? I don't know. I had the impression that we met exactly at the same level, I might be wrong, maybe they think differently. I get a lot of food for thought from them, but I don't think more than from other people. To me, they are very very interesting, but I had the impression that we met actually on the same level, in a way of understanding. And Taku Sugimoto, he came up to me one day, and he said "Hello, I'm Sugimoto-san and I like your work and maybe we can do something together." And then the first time we played together, it just clicked. I thought "wow, now this is improvisation again", I don't have a problem with the term of improvised music. I had problems with a certain kind of improvised music.

But for me, there is quite a big difference between improvisation and written music and I think we realized that today and yesterday, the difference. Because Jürg Frey's piece, we never would have improvised in that way, because it's really a specific thing. I would say the same with 'Pollock '82' because I was actually really following the score, and I didn't want to add anything, and I decided I'm going to only use the white noise, the breath and then interpret the signs. And with improvisation, what we did now, I wasn't even thinking or feeling in that way, and looking, "now this will appear" or something. It's a completely different emotional situation to me. So I don't have problems with the terms.

And with the Japanese guys, maybe there is a certain aspect in their culture which appeals to my understanding of their culture, because we don't really have it in Europe. There is some, of course, and in America, as well. So I don't know about the influence, who influenced who, and I don't know if it's important. Not more than if I talk to Keith or play with Keith or talk to somebody else, there's always a mutual and even contagious thinking.

Rowe: Well, I think for me, the important Japanese influence, I think the first one, was having an invitation to see a demonstration of zen archery, when I was about 24, in London. It was part of a secret society, and we also had an invitation to go and see a Gagaku orchestra, both those things were very important. And then that Jac Holzman recording of Japanese classical music, so I'd say the mid-sixties were the start. And then through Cage and conscious rejection of rhythm in favor of pulse, which again came from Japanese and Chinese music. For me, I have to conflate Japanese and Chinese because we were very very influenced by Chinese thoughts and the book of Joseph Needham's, "Science and Civilisation in China", to the extent where we actually learned Chinese and to speak a little bit of Chinese and to write it in preparation for "Treatise".

So all that came way way way way way way way before, and I think I would concur with what Radu is saying. Toshi is the first major person I interacted with and I would say it was the same experience for me, it was like meeting a brother, a musical brother and we just clicked.

Abbey: Well, that was 2001 or 2000, but before that there was the Sugimoto record you heard and working together a bit with him, the session in London and the concerts in France and in Wels? You've talked to me before about when Julien Ottavi played 'Opposite' over a club speaker system in Nantes, about the effect that had on you.

Rowe: Well, that's right, one could say that how one is influenced, one way of being influenced, is that people give you permission to do things. I always feel that Cage gave us permission to do something...


Rowe: And I think the permission-makers...

Malfatti: And you can get permission from other people as well.

Rowe: Absolutely, absolutely. And I think that's one of the very important things in one's own life is to pass on permission to other people. It's very very important thing that we do. So when I heard Taku's recording for the first time, it was like a permission to think about doing that.

But I've said to you before, that when I first played with Toshi, it was almost as if I'd been hanging around for thirty years (chuckles) waiting for someone to turn up where I could actually play like this! Because I couldn't play like that in AMM, I couldn't play like that in any other situation, I could only... Maybe it's not strictly true, but I didn't meet anyone.

Abbey: Yeah, I have that note you sent when we were finishing Weather Sky, where you said almost exactly that. You wrote "in many ways it's a kind of music that I've waited to make for 30 years, but there was never anyone who felt the need to do it".

Rowe: Yeah, exactly.

Malfatti: Right, same here. Very good.

Q; Yeah, that's kind of what I was driving at for both of you. Maybe there wasn't an influence for you, Radu, or no more of an influence than from anyone else, but it does seem like some of your strongest collaborators now come from Tokyo. And I'm not saying necessarily influence, but it's always nice to have collaborators, and it must have been invigorating to find Sugimoto and find someone who shared...

Malfatti: This is certainly true, this is certainly true. Yeah, yeah. And because of the old idiomatic way of playing, actually I stopped almost 100 percent and I was together with the Wandelweiser people and that was fully satisfying for me. And I had to learn how to play this, this was not easy, it was not easy to begin with. I had similar or sometimes the same idea of what it should be, and then I met Antoine (Beuger) in Cologne. And it was a little bit the same, it was like "wow, there is this guy who does what I want to do". So I got more and more into that, and improvisation, I put that aside.

And then when I met Sugimoto, I hadn't heard any music of his before. So the first time we played, that was the first time I heard him, even though we'd met a few times. And that was the first time I heard him, and I was really like "whew, wow" (Rowe chuckles), so in this way I would love to improvise again. But it's not really an influence...

Abbey: It's not really an influence, it was the invigoration.

Malfatti: It's like Keith, I was waiting. I was waiting for somebody, and then great!

Abbey: I remember reading your Improvised Music from Japan back and forth and thinking it was like you found a brother, like you found someone who shared your belief system, from halfway across the world.

Malfatti: That's right, yeah. Fascinating, isn't it?

Abbey: Over the last few years, my perception is that 'our music' (whatever that may be) has moved away from collaborative improv being the primary driving force and more and more towards solo work and composed music. Do you feel that's accurate, and if so, why?

Rowe: One thing that one might be trying to attain is some sense of clarity in what you're doing, and I think it's certainly true that if you're solo, you have the clarity of who you are. You know what it's like, when you're in an ensemble, you can be doing something that you're really interested in following a path that you want to develop, and someone will do something which totally wrecks it. And if you're working solo, then you have this chance of this particular kind of clarity, and obviously composition too.

But maybe it's also the fact that we're just balancing. Maybe so-called free improvisation is something that historically can't go on and on and on forever, it needs to be balanced out with some other thing, so the improvisation would become more sparse after this concentrated, in-your-face, full on, high volume maximum amount of information and it's quite often in the arts that you'll swing to a different perspective. This is all very healthy, you know. And I think at the moment it's going in a particular direction, but as sure as eggs are eggs, in 5 or 6 years time, it'll go back to some fully saturated world, where the investigation of silence which we've undertaken in the last half century or something like that will have exhausted our interest for the moment, then we'll move on to pitched sounds or non-pitched sounds or orthodox sound production. It will move. It won't stay like this.

Malfatti: I think it did already, actually.

Rowe: Yeah.

Malfatti: The only thing is, about the solo. That started much earlier than...

Abbey: Yeah, I'm not saying that there were no solos.

Malfatti: Yeah, of course, there always were solos.

Abbey: I guess my issue is you can have a clarity and control when you're playing solo and someone isn't going to mess you up, but the flip side is you're much less likely to be pushed into an area that you wouldn't be pushed into otherwise. My own taste is towards collaborative improvisation in an ideal world, because of that, because musicians can find themselves pushed into places that they've never gone.

Rowe: Well, you need both. I don't think anyone's advocating that you only do solos.

Abbey: Sure. I guess the point that I'm driving at and the point where I was going to with the next question is that for me, we've almost gotten to a point, and Radu may have felt like this a while ago, but for me it's come in the last couple of years, where I almost feel like it's impossible, or close to impossible, to make a great collaborative improvised record anymore. Of course, I'm saying that an hour after we probably just did that, but I think in general, it's very hard. When I look at what's come out in 2010, there's less than a handful of records like that, and for me, that's the issue. Of course, there have always been solo records, there's always been composed music, there's always been collective improvised music, there will always be all of them. It's a question of which are more interesting and which are actually doing something, and to me the balance there has shifted in the last few years. And I guess what I wonder about with your perspective, because this is my perspective: do you really think it's possible that an area like free improvisation which theoretically at least has an incredibly wide range of possibilities, I mean it's not jazz, where there are defined boundaries. So despite this seeming openness, do you think nevertheless that we've come to the end or are coming to the end of that era?

Malfatti: Well, first of all, I don't think so. But maybe the definition is to be questioned, but again, that's why I really don't distinguish between composed music and improvised music, because you have very boring composed music, obviously, and you have compositions full of cliches of the cliche of the cliche of the cliche, and you have that in improvised music as well. The most interesting part for me today is what are the three most important aspects in music, but not only in music, in different areas as well, is the material and the structure and the form. So the material was a very very interesting topic, let's take Helmut Lachenmann, but there were of course other people before. So he is talking about "klangzertrümmerung", which means "the scattering of sound", and he didn't want to have a clear note anymore. The thing is, the structure of his pieces, they were actually very old-fashioned in a way. He had sonata structures, I'm not talking about the form. So one of the first people who really took care of a new understanding of structure was actually Cage, and his compatriots. And so now I think my main point of interest is the structure. I'm not interested so much anymore in the material; it can be noise, it can be sound, it can be distorted, it can be a very clear sound, a very clear note on a traditional instrument.

But what do I do? I have a big space, and I decide I want to build a house in it. And then there are many possibilities, I can build 273 rooms, so every room is just a square meter or something, I can decide I want 3 rooms, or even just 1. So the form from the outside is still the same, but the structure is what you are doing. But for me it is like I have a sound, a note or whatever, a sound, and how do I structure it in relationship to the other sounds. So in that case, with a full understanding, I wouldn't be afraid at all to do a collective improvisation with 20 people, if those 20 people have a similar, not the same, but a similar concept of structuring. Which means, in other words, there is no single way of thinking, there is no "let's fill this space", there is no "what else can I do?", but for the sake of the overall building and produce your sound and willing to listen to the other sounds for half an hour maybe. And I don't feel the need, that there is something missing and I take the opportunity to be listening to other sounds, and this for me is what is very interesting in composed music if it has the same aspect. One building with one or two big rooms, instead of all the little cells in prisons, maybe even locked doors.

So for me this is the most interesting part, and therefore I don't see a very big difference between improvised music and composed music, because in composed music you can arrange the sounds in a specific way. In improvised music you can as well, but you really need all the other people with the same understanding, the same feeling. But that's nothing new, because that always has been like that, even in free jazz or Dixieland, you need the people to produce a certain thing. So as I said, I think the main topic, the main interest, is the space and the structure of how to place rooms or commas or sounds. For me, this is the most interesting bit today.

Abbey: That makes a lot of sense.

Malfatti: And that's why you don't find it very often., because most of the people, they are just busy to fill up the space, the structure, fill it up, fill it up, fill it up. I don't want to use the term "Louder, Higher, Faster" because that's 30 or 40 years old, but then it was in a positive way and now it would be a criticism.

Rowe: Yeah, I think for me, likewise, I don't have a distinction between composed music and improvised music. It's why I have a problem with the term "improvised music" because I'm not sure how much of it is actually improvised.

Malfatti: But you don't have a better term, so you might as well use it.

Rowe: Yeah, exactly. But for me there is just music, there is only music, there is just this term we call "music", even that is slightly problematic. Because I liken it to if I walk into an art gallery, there are paintings, and it doesn't matter to me if the painting was made in 1350 or 1628 or 1922 or 1956, the work needs to resonate with me to have significance or meaning or whatever you want to call that. And it doesn't matter what the genre is, the genre of painting is for me not relevant.

So I think it's true too with music, that I'm not really worried about what the genre is. But my experience is that there are certain areas of music which I just find more rewarding to spend time with, like Haydn's string quartets, Bach-St. Matthew Passion, or David Tudor playing John Cage-Variations II or John Tilbury playing Bunita Marcus or Horowitz playing B Minor Sonata in St. Petersburg. That's the only thing that interests me, is the quality of the thing, and I'm really not worried about how it's notated, how it's written and all of that.

Malfatti: I agree, yeah.

Abbey: Fair enough. The rest are hopefully more interesting questions (chuckles all around)...

Where (and obviously you don't know, but I'm asking anyway), where do you think our music will go in the next year, five years, ten years? Do you see any new galvanizing force like (at least in my opinion and I guess for your guys also) the Tokyo musicians were?

Malfatti: First of all, I have no idea where it will go. Second, I'm not really interested. Third, it's impossible to know. You could ask me how the weather will be in April 2012.

Actually I'm almost quoting Monk, I think, and somebody asked him a similar question and he said "I don't know, even if it goes to hell, I don't care. It's now that I'm interested in." So I have no idea, and it's impossible to know, I don't want to know, I can't know, and I would hate to make any predictions.

Rowe: Yeah, I mean, of course, it's really really difficult to know with any certainty. I suppose that one can say with certainty that 98 percent of it, like the music of any age, will be garbage.

And I think the problem is if you're working quite hard on what you're about, if you're consciously participating on what you're about. I've said in other places, if you have your nose so close to the canvas, that it's actually very difficult to be objective about other people's work, let alone your own work, and very difficult to track what's going on. And I'm not a promiscuous type, so I don't have lots of info flowing into my system which will lead me to know with any certainty what's going on.

I just think, though, and maybe I share this with Radu, that probably the most important thing is to keep moving in your own world, keep discovering, keep learning, pressing the refresh button, trying your very very best not to slip into bad habits. And that would be true for every artist of any distinction, any musician who takes their craft seriously, whether you're playing Bach or whether you're playing whatever it is. It's the same issues for all of us, we all share the same issues.

Abbey: Just to follow up, and maybe you answered this already Radu, and if you did, I'm sorry, I wrote these out before.

But just the same exact question on a personal level instead of an overall level, where do you see your own music going in the next year, 5 years, 10 years, if you have any idea?

Malfatti: Same answer. Same answer, really, I have no idea.

I'm curious, I'm curious about it and I'm looking forward to see what's happening and hopefully, probably not, but hopefully, I would love to change again once. Actually I don't think I'm trying to change, I don't want to change the world, I don't want to change anybody, maybe myself. Rather I'd say I'd like to be alert and aware, and really feel and observe very closely and critically my own doing, my own thinking. Probably it's enough to observe it because we all change, and usually people who stagnate, they don't allow themselves to observe themselves, because they move already, but then they say "no, I'd rather stay here where I'm used to, that's my field where I'm comfortable". But I think if you're really alert and aware of yourself, then you might change anyway. Probably.

And if it comes to a point where I have the feeling "wow, I feel another change coming." I'm probably too old for that, but it would be great if I could experience that once more the way I did 20 years ago and 40 years ago and 60 years ago. I thought I had three, to me, major changes in my musical way of thinking, even though the first one I wouldn't call it a change because I grew up in a certain way and I was rebellious enough to try to break out and it was a necessity more than a conscious change. But the last one was not a very conscious change either, maybe. It was a necessity, it was a saturation. As I said before, I knew I didn't want to do this anymore, but I didn't know what I wanted to do, where I would go.

And if I'm lucky enough to get once more to that very shaky line of uncertainty, "where am I going now?", I would be very grateful. But I'm looking for it, and I can wait, and allow myself to do it again.

Rowe: Well, of course, for me I suppose the most drastic kind of change was very early '66 where we formed something called AMM. Both in terms of that very difficult, finding a completely new language for your instrument, it's quite a difficult thing to do. It's very hard to keep doing that, I imagine very few people do it once, let alone one person doing it a number of times.

It's kind of interesting, I remember sitting on the seafront with Eddie down in Marseilles, a long long time ago. He looked at me and said "do you think we'll ever be involved in another musical revolution?", and I said "no, probably not". But I think in a way there have been other minor ways of working, so for instance the sound world like what we did today, particularly in the improvisation, which we're wholly responsible for (as opposed to the composed pieces, which we're only partially responsible for), I think there's a kind of change in the emphasis of the language, the degrees of abstraction, which comes as a result of everything else that has happened, but it's actually quite a complex subject to try to unravel.

(Photos by Yuko Zama)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Two Worlds

by Taku Sugimoto

What I am going to write here is: What is the distinction between the two worlds of art? What is happening in the boundary between them? And how is the transition from one world to the other made? It may not be easy since the distinction between these two worlds, that I am going to mention here, is rather vague. In order to avoid waking a sleeping dog, I will try to focus on talking about the music - especially about a particular field that is called 'experimental music' or 'improvisation', or more precisely, 'Onkyo-style improvisation'. My purpose here is to think about the reason of the current stagnation of this music scene.

However, I am not totally sure if I can have a clear judgment on the question: Is it possible to classify everything (even the music which is supposed to belong to the above-mentioned genre) into these two worlds that I have in my mind? So I may try to keep the issue rather vague in an arbitrary manner - but I will also try to be assertive in a way to make the point.

Meanwhile, "distinction between the two worlds" may be a somewhat strange concept in this issue - not because one world seems to support the other or both worlds seem to need each other, but because it seems to me that each of these two worlds belongs to a different dimension in the first place, so it seems impossible to conflict with each other.

To make it convenient, I will call the two worlds as 'something solid' and 'something attractive'. 'Something attractive' means everything but 'something solid', and 99 percent of music belongs to this category - that are predominantly popular in general. Already at this point, I can predict various objections and rejections from readers, but I think I should not wimp out here. Of course I am completely aware that this classification (and what I am going to write here) might be horribly extreme and dangerous - but I chose to start from this point. Otherwise, I could not find a clue on how to start or how to develop my story at all.

As a start, I can say that Derek Bailey belongs to the world of 'something attractive'. There might have been the time when he was not (perhaps for sure!). But from the present point of view, it seems difficult to say that he was recognized to belong to the world of 'something solid' - since we cannot listen to his music in the same way as we used to do any more. The way his later works were received after a certain period of time was completely that of "something attractive". The reason why I am critical about his later works is because I don't think he ever tried to search for alternative ways or even felt the necessity of doing it, when the general recognition of his works started to be stereotyped in a certain context. Bailey was obstinate. He didn't hesitate to stop going for the general recognition as "one of the most avant-garde guitarists among many others". Bailey's self-parodying way of applying (or being applied!) and Duchamp's "Boîte-en-valise" in which he contained the duplication of his past works are completely different.

I cited Bailey as a start since I think we can see the boundary of the two worlds here. Originally, my idea in this essay was approaching this issue of the classification of the two worlds as just a matter of form. It was Tsunoda's question that triggered me: "In the world of art, why do execrable works tend to be more supported by the overwhelming majority than solid works?" His words synched with my long-term question on this issue, and I thought I should tackle it finally. But then I realized that it couldn’t be ended with just talking about the superficial differences of two worlds.

My initial interest was carried toward the question: "How is an artwork (or an artist) recognized?" Bailey appeared on the scene with his one and only style. The quickest way to attract people's attention in a certain field is to acquire a unique style with a strong impact. Of course Bailey had it. But the real strength must have been somewhere beyond that. It could have been the appearance of genuinely innovative music that held potentials beyond just "a new style of performance". However, Bailey ended up allowing the general recognition that just covered the style of his performance. At that point, his music became something applicable.

As a more familiar example, it may be inevitable to say that the area of improvisation called "Berlin Reductionism" had been just scattering around the applicable materials, if we see it from the present point of view. I will discuss the details later, but there was no real reinvention either in the form or the structure. Of course, there were the attempts of bold expansion of the usage of musical instruments and the ways of playing them, as you can see in the achievement of Axel Dörner, but it was nothing beyond the succession of the "special technique (and its tone)" which contemporary classical musicians like Lachenmann had tried already (although I have to admit that there was a certain newness in the way of incorporating the technique as a main feature into improvisation.)

However, in the case of both Dörner and Lachenmann, the form and the structure that supported the music fundamentally were outdated. The newness of the materials distracted us from the most crucial part - genuinely innovative music should have a new form and a new structure, which is unfortunately rarely found. Dörner did not have them, but Bailey had them once - he had a new form, a new structure, new materials, and he knew how to combine them all.

Improvisation which emphasizes the materials tends to be swayed sensuously both by the performers and the audience, and tends to go toward the direction of pleasing the sensation. Performances that only emphasize the materials (or textures) tend to focus everything on the stimulation, meditation, pleasantness and catharsis just like the CGI and SFX of today's Hollywood movies do to us. They tend to be received like that, and this is the entrance to "something attractive'. And in order to make use of the materials efficiently, the next step many musicians started to move into is the realm of 'composition'.

At first, these musicians started collecting a certain quality and quantity of materials. In their compositions, the desired materials were the ones that had a strong impact so they could appeal enough on their own. Otherwise, the similar effect could not be attained. In terms of controlling the materials, every composition may have this similar aspect, but in those musicians' concepts of compositions, the 'effective material' meant something that had a powerful magnetic nature itself. And their compositions that best took advantages of these materials were the ways they could apply each material into some conventionally-known methodology or format. That was more likely the concrete control rather than abstract control. The methodology or format could be anything - improvisation, rock, jazz, or contemporary classical music. The materials to be applied could be anything as well - Bailey (or Bailey-style performance), Dörner (or Dörner-style performance), some regular loop, noise, records, silences - anything with an established status could be used. Which means, however innovative the performance was, the material itself was unable to escape its destiny to possibly end up with the material for some DJ. This is the start of 'transition'.

I think that the so-called 'Onkyo-style improvisation' which I myself was involved with was about the (rather delicate) layers of the performances and the materials that were based on each musician's uniqueness. From the methodological point of view, it was not so different from what the European free musicians including Bailey had aimed for. The difference was just the texture of the materials (though I must say the difference was significant).

Next, there appeared another style called "random improvisation'. This was more like the methodology that emphasized the spaces between sounds. But here again, it still contained the overconfidence in the materials. By trying to present each material separately from the previous or next material in the context (which I doubt would be possible), there was a risk that the materials became even more emphasized. Sometimes there was some interesting effect that was born in the contrast between the sound and the silence, but when it failed, the only thing that was worth listening was the material only (at least, to me). That was the possible risk. And once it failed into that, it was not so different from self-DJ. (If you narrow down the materials, there is always a limit. The issue is how to define the randomness. In the end, it is difficult for a musician to get out of the randomness that feels right to him/her. But this is another issue.)

I am not saying that the above-mentioned approaches were all in vain. I think that they were necessary in some way and there were some great achievements as a result of those approaches. However, "improvisation which emphasized the texture" is completely stuck in a dead end by now. It had already come to the point where no methodology can make a profound change in this field of music in its context. The CDs produced in this genre (and other genres as well) everyday have the same contents basically - the only difference is the combination of the musicians, which cannot be no more than objects for a small group of curiosity seekers. But why is this kind of music is acquiring more of an audience now than it used to have? Isn't that just because there are more curiosity seekers than before?

Then, how should we define "something easy to understand"? Perhaps it means some conventionally known form. Of course, every form is meant to be renewed, but since the renewing process happens very slowly and gradually, the original identity of the form will stay the same. For example, how can we define the music called "jazz"? Today, "jazz" must mean something that keeps changing as time goes by while keeping a certain particular form. Most jazz musicians seem to try to incorporate some new elements into their music, believing that it has to have a certain form as jazz but it is also necessary to add something new in line with the times. What is being incorporated there are generally some unique styles of performance or new materials. As for the structural change, the only thing they can adopt might be something like a bluff or just a seasoning - since any structural change beyond that could violate the form. Whatever the genre is - in the field of rock, folk or contemporary classical music (it can be classified in smaller categories), in every genre that has a history, similar changes are happening.

"Material" can also mean a certain set form. The material can be applied in any genre of music - free jazz, techno, funk, Onkyo, noise, ... and anything. There are good matches and bad matches among them. If too many materials are applied in the music, it may lose its original identity (though it can be said that this is a new genre of music). What is required for the contemporary music craftsmen is the skill to incorporate the materials into the best combination. In a way, they are tailors. Some tailors have good taste, some have bad taste. There may be even a great tailor among them. However, not every piece of music is in the hands of the tailors.

From here, I want to talk about the less than one percent of the music I mentioned before. About five years ago, I went to the composer Antoine Beuger's concert. There was no one in the audience besides the organizer and some musicians involved (including me.) The concert was five hours (still a shortened version of the composition), and half the piece was with silences. Even in the part which some sounds were involved, Beuger read the text from Spinoza's Ethics, one word in every eight minutes. It was a hard experience. (It was Antoine Beuger "calme etendue" - 'spinoza'.) No one may want to come to such a concert. If they knew the content, they would be even more hesitant to come. It seems not so fun. But in reality, it was not like that at all. What I experienced during the concert was a quite bizarre sensation. I still remember that the sound of the entrance door opening felt like some art object that I could feel in my hand. I am not going to describe what I felt from the concert further here, since the way people may feel about the music would be different depending on the individual. I rather want to talk about the more important and crucial matter - that the form, the material and the structure of this kind of music are all in a close relationship to the extent that none of them can be separated from the others. This will help to explain what the difference between the music represented by Beuger and other cheap music that is just easily influenced by the atmosphere of the music of Beuger and such.

Is there any element, in the above-mentioned Beuger's piece, which can be applied to other music? First, let's look at the form in which the part of sounds and the part of silences come alternately. It might be possible within a certain range. If it is about 10 seconds (or up to 30 seconds) sound part and silence part to use alternately, it could be applied in rock or jazz without so much hesitation. But it is impossible to extend each (sound and silence) unit to 10 minutes, and considering that the units will be used repeatedly, the duration will end up to be beyond the limit. Meanwhile, in Beuger's piece, the length of each unit is almost 30 minutes (or more or less depending on the performance), and there is a fair amount of the repetition of the alternating units (or we can say that the repetition is almost the only thing happening). So the overall scale is very different.

How about the structure of Beuger's piece? The voice during the sound part and the density of the silences must be the core of the structure. But this structure is closely connected with the form in which each unit changes its content, so if you try to take out the sound part only to apply to some other form, it will be a completely different music from the original piece. It might be possible to apply the idea of "one sound in every 8 seconds" to some other form, but then it will lose its advantage of the original structure. (But there are so many pieces of music that incorporate something like that - with slightly altered rules like changing from 8 seconds to 7 seconds, from one sounds to two sounds. Most of those musicians are just trying to randomly incorporate some interesting idea like that into some outdated style without thinking so much. This ends up in a not-so-different-from-old-stuff kind of music, because they are lacking in their own ideas.)

The last thing is 'materials'. In the case of this Beuger's piece, the materials are his own voices. Voice is not regarded as anything so new - it is everywhere now. I think that Beuger himself did not give so much absolute meaning to the material itself regarding this piece. His material here seems to be more like the material in an abstract sense, like the pitches and the instrumentation in normal compositions. Actually, this piece has various versions for different instruments. What Beuger wanted to try in this piece was, I think, to see what kind of differences could occur when it was performed with different instruments in various versions. This concept is clearly different from the idea of bringing something new to Onkyo music by incorporating some ear-catching material needlessly. To me, it seems that the Beuger's piece showed us a new way of dealing with the materials with a question: Is it possible to maintain the identity of the music even if the material part is undecided?

In compositions like Beuger's, the form, the structure and the materials form the originality of the piece by closely connecting with each other, even though part of them can be applicable. It is not like just one of the elements sustains the composition. On the other hand, if Axel Dörner plays trumpet in his familiar tones, it will be recognized as 'Dörner's sounds' in whatever situations they were heard - in a rock band, in a jazz band, in a techno band, or in a microtone improvisation - because only the materials and the styles of the performance are connected with his music. From this point is a problem. Once improvisers are recognized by a certain amount of people, most of them start wandering around here and there simply carrying their own materials. They start trying a bit of this and that. The more unique their materials and styles of performances are, the more they tend to have a false illusion that they can play their music wherever they are (or that their unique materials are contributing to the current music scene). They may say, "I am pursuing various possibilities", but what they actually do is often just incorporating their materials into different forms. Even when they play in different genres, it is nothing more than taking out their materials from different drawers. Dörner also plays jazz, which is not so bad, and also he has a good sense for improvisation - but after all, there is nothing beyond that. There is no potential in this style in a true sense.

Materials include the performers' styles as well, of course. However, when they bring those materials into (so-called) improvisation sessions, many of the cases tend to fail into random use of them. Or some musicians may try to incorporate their materials into some conventional form (the improvisation they are doing itself is already a conventional form), in order to make their materials sound as effective as possible. In doing that, they seem to try to increase their prestige under the name of 'composition'. But in most cases, the results are musically even inferior to the previous step (the improvisation in which musicians just present their materials). But in reality, somehow this kind of music seems to gain a wider audience.

What kind of style do these musicians stick to? In terms of the nature of the styles that can be fit in any kind of genre (if they try), what on earth is the difference between their styles and something like Eric Clapton's guitar style or Frank Nagai's singing style? Doesn't the original sense of "style" suggest how the whole music should be? 'Unique style of performance' can bring newness temporarily, but it is difficult to achieve successful results musically in a true sense. However, many musicians are engaged in making disastrous music without realizing that. They are just blindly pursuing for some new materials and new styles of performance, to apply them to various forms. Isn't it always the repetition of that? In the so-called Onkyo improvisation scene, there were perhaps fewer flavors of personal egos in musicians' materials, but their aggressive attitude trying to present their materials was not so different from the other improvisers (most of whom are disgusted by Onkyo improvisers). In fact, there are even many worse examples in Onkyo improvisers than the others.

As I repeated to say, while the materials are constantly replaced with others, the most crucial thing (music itself) has not changed at all - especially in the improvisation scene. Perhaps this is because the form of improvisation is basically sustained by musicians' ad-lib reactions and their instant ideas (i.e., should I react or not, should I make sounds or not, should I keep silence or keep making sounds, etc.). If not, they may think about adopting a vague common aesthetics (considered as the highest common factor shared by the participants) in the background of the music. The so-called 'minimal improvisers' (perhaps I am considered as one of them) seem to have this tendency. Many of these improvisers seem to be influenced by only the aesthetics and the atmosphere of Wandelweiser's musicians represented by Beuger and Radu Malfatti, directly or indirectly.

But recently, I started to rethink that there might be some other way, too. It must be something that derives from the "vague common aesthetics considered as the highest common factor shared by the participants", but in the mealtime, musicians should be more aware of the form and the structure while re-examining their materials with displacing the context, so they can grasp the whole music. Doing this in improvisation instead of composition must be the key to break through the stagnation. Of course it has to bring different effects to the music from what compositions do. I would like to pursue this topic on the potentials of improvisation further sometime in the future.

- January 2006

(Translation by Yuko Zama)


1. Derek Bailey, 1975 (unknown)
2. Stefan Thut with Antoine Beuger (Silvia Kamm-Gabathuler)
3. Taku Sugimoto (Yuko Zama)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


by Michael Pisaro

Wandelweiser is a word

Wandelweiser is a word for a particular group of people who have been committed, over the long term, to sharing their work and working together. I still find it something of a miracle that we discovered each other and have continued to function for over seventeen years: coming from different musical backgrounds, living in different parts of the world, and feeling free to go our separate ways when necessary. In fact, the “group” as such doesn’t ever come together as a whole, and includes others besides composers: musicians, artists, writers – friends. In Haan (near Düsseldorf) there is an office where scores are collected, the web site maintained, and recordings are released. This place, lovingly run by Antoine Beuger, is essential to the continued existence of the organization, but not to the deep connections that exist between us. Our sense of a shared mission is due, I think, to the countless beautiful musical and artistic moments we have experienced with each other.

Edition Wandelweiser was the name Burkhard Schlothauer gave to the fledging publishing and recording company he formed with Beuger in 1992. I guess it means “change signpost” if one understands it as a combination of Wandel with Wegweiser; or perhaps more literally, “change wisely”– (or, if one understands the second part as Weise: wise man of change?) Whatever it means, I was never completely comfortable with the name, but have always understood it somewhat humorously – as something that just popped out of Burkhard’s linguistically inventive mind, rather than as a description of any kind of aesthetic program. (I’m pretty sure he was not trying to indicate that we were especially wise.) In any case, Antoine had recently met Jürg Frey, Chico Mello, Thomas Stiegler and Kunsu Shim and it must have seemed that they had enough in common (not just musically) to band together. They had a feeling that there had to be a way to do things outside of the rich, overconfident new music organizations in Germany and Switzerland, plus a sense of being outside of the status quo these organizations created. Over the years several more joined – including myself, Manfred Werder, Carlo Inderhees, Radu Malfatti, Marcus Kaiser, Eva-Maria Houben, Craig Shepard, André Möller, Anastassis Philippakopoulos (and several others who have since left: amongst them Makiko Nishikaze and Klaus Lang) and then, at some point, there seemed to be enough people, even though we kept meeting (many) other interesting musicians. (I will say more about this later.)

The first years of the organization were quite dynamic. Members came and went. For a while there were connections with Edition Thürmchen in Cologne and Edition Mikro in Zurich, two other publisher collectives of avant-garde music. For a period of about five years, starting in the mid-‘90s, Wandelweiser had an association with another performance and publishing group, named Zeitkratzer (the whole organization then was grouped under the umbrella of the English translation of that name: Timescraper). Burkhard was the only one who belonged to both groups. At the time Zeitkratzer (directed by Reinhold Friedl) was more oriented towards the live electronic side of the experimental music spectrum. Still, there was a fair amount of overlap between the two groups, as Zeitkratzer recorded works by Schlothauer, Malfatti and Beuger, and had as members, musicians such as Axel Dörner and Ulrich Krieger, who shared some aesthetic preferences with the composers in EW. After 2000 however the two groups went their separate ways. (Some associations continue – since 2007 Ulrich Krieger has taught at CalArts.)

Wandelweiser in 1992

This was an exceptionally obscure stream of music in 1992 – almost invisible, at the edge even of the experimental avant-garde. There were no signs of it in North America or, as far as I know, anywhere outside of Germany and Switzerland. One would only have discovered it by accident.

Here is how I found out about it. Kunsu Shim – who, while no longer a part of Wandelweiser, was crucial to the aesthetic development of the group – was visiting Chicago in the fall of 1992 (with his partner, German composer Gerhard Stäbler). Kunsu, of Korean background, had lived for several years in Germany. He was very quiet (and slightly shy), but friendly – the opposite of the boisterous American “new music types” I knew at the time, and the first person I had met in a long time who wanted to talk about the music of John Cage and Morton Feldman.

Cage had been a visitor to Northwestern University, where I was teaching, for a few weeks in the spring of 1992. He had died in August of ’92 and his name was still very much in the air. At that time – and I think for most of the long period after Silence was published (1961) – it seemed musicians were more interested in discussing Cage’s ideas than his music. For Kunsu, the music of Cage, and of those who worked with him and followed in his wake was felt to be more radical and more useful than the writing: because it had so many loose ends and live wires still to be explored (something I would also later encounter with other Wandelweiser composers). Thus 4’33” was seen not as a joke or a Zen koan or a philosophical statement: it was heard as music. It was also viewed as unfinished work in the best sense: it created new possibilities for the combination (and understanding) of sound and silence. Put simply, silence was a material and a disturbance of material at the same time.

In 1990 I had started to put relatively long silences into pieces, without really knowing why I was doing it. I wanted to stop telling musicians what to do in every detail and to start creating possibilities for performers to explore a particular, individual sense of sound within a simple clear structure I would provide. But I felt as if I was alone in these interests. Part of the circumstance behind Wandelweiser is the uncanny synchronicity: around that time several of us (including Kunsu, Antoine, Jürg, Manfred and Radu) were making more or less tentative stabs in this direction, without at all being aware that there were others doing it.

Kunsu Shim and my first encounter with silent music

Kunsu gave me some tapes of his music. One consisted of a recent solo marimba piece called …floating, song, feminine… (1992). There were hardly any sounds on that tape! I was instantly captivated. Tape hiss, a very few incidental noises (a chair, a cough, a few other unrecognizable sounds) and once in a great while a single short and abrupt marimba note, which seemed to appear out of nowhere: like the sharp tip of a pencil puncturing a sheet of paper, or a red balloon in a clear sky. (Later I would learn that the player was on a ladder and occasionally dropping mallets onto the keyboard. I’m not sure if this would have affected my response to the piece.) It was at once so clear, so simple that even a 3-year old would get it, and yet, simultaneously so mysterious and complex in its affect.

These early pieces by Kunsu, including in addition, vague sensations of something vanishing (string quartet and contrabass, 1992), marimba, bow, stone, player (1993), expanding space in limited time (solo violin, 1994), and the chamber pieces (1994) seemed to be putting the world on the head of a pin. In expanding space in limited time the bow sometimes moves only half its length in five minutes. If you saw the violinist playing you would think he was a living sculpture installation instead of music. In a performance of the piece at Northwestern’s Pick-Staiger Hall in 1994 it took 20 minutes for me to hear any sound from the violin at all. Once I did start to hear it, over the course of the nearly two hours duration, the music became almost unbelievably rich: there seemed to be more sound, more tightly compacted in this miniature world, than in the statistical complexities of Xenakis (or the black metal of Burzum). The music also revealed the complexity of “silence” itself. Silence in music was not the cessation of sound, or even a gesture: it was a different sound, one with more density than those sounds made by instruments.

No apology

Why do we like what we like? This is usually the most difficult point to explain.
Why would a schooled musician like myself, someone who grew up listening to and studying Jimi Hendrix and avant-rock, free jazz, and classical music suddenly decide that music with very little sound was the most exciting thing in the world? Basically every member of Wandelweiser has a version of this story. I’ve spent a lot of time pondering what it was that was so fascinating and inspiring about this piece (and the other pieces from this direction that I was beginning to hear). I have come to the conclusion that, while it’s possible to trace the moments that might have set the stage for such a reaction, the reaction itself is inexplicable. It is, at its root, not logical. It doesn’t follow from anything like a step-by-step process. You make a decision in a moment, and suddenly you’ve turned down one fork in the road. Terrifying and reassuring; strange and familiar; exciting and normal: all at once.

There’s no reason to love this music. One just does (or one doesn’t). Aesthetics and history come after the fact. Essays (like this one) will not make you like it better and will not ultimately defend its continued existence. The last thing I would want to do is to normalize something I continue to find strange.

Once one has made the turn onto this strange road, a world of difference opens up. What looks like a narrow passageway from the entrance, turns out to have all kinds of byways, pathways, way stations — it becomes a world of its own. Small musical differences that to some might just seem like inflections (for example, the difference between a silence of 50 and of 60 seconds, or of a few decibels, or the difference in timbre between a low trombone or an e-bow guitar, or between digital silence and recorded silence) become intensely interesting to those working with them. Having had some training in just intonation, this was familiar: the difference between an equal tempered and a just (5/4) major third is for some unimportant, and for others of fundamental importance. (If someone says about a kind of music that it “all sounds the same,” it’s very likely to interest me. In my aesthetic experience it’s more enjoyable to make my own landscape out of things that are apparently the same, that to be given a group of diverse things that already stake out their own clear positions on the map.)

To finish the Kunsu story

The recording of Kunsu’s music was definitely much farther in this direction than I had gone. Soon he had provided me with a few more of his scores along these lines (there weren’t many then) and a few recordings. It was then that I first encountered the music of Antoine (his incredible lesen, hören: buch für stimme, for voice and tape from 1991) and Jürg (his very simple and beautiful Invention for piano, from 1990). [Later it became clear that both Frey and Beuger had been moving in this direction for a while – Frey making gradual movements away, from the 1980’s onward, from his orientation in the New York School music of the 1960’s, and Beuger, who already in his teens had put silences into pieces, picking up composition again in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s with pieces such as schweigen, hören for orchestra (1990) – very likely the first piece to sound like a “Wandelweiser” piece.]

Kunsu and I met again a little over a year later (1994, I think), and after that, unbeknownst to me, he took the liberty of sending Beuger some of my recent scores. A few months later I received a phone call from Antoine and we had a long conversation (anyone who has had the pleasure of one of these long phone talks with Antoine will know what an incredible experience that can be), at the end of which he asked if I was interested in joining the collective.

Shortly thereafter, on a trip to Germany, I met a group of the current (Antoine, Jürg, Burkhard, Chico, Thomas), and soon to be (Radu, Carlo) members for the first time. It was an incredible bunch of interesting, strong, diverse, stimulating, and very humorous people! It was like meeting up with some of Walter Zimmermann’s desert plants in the midst of the fertile high culture of central Europe (notwithstanding that some came originally from Korea, Brazil and unfashionable places in Switzerland, Austria and Holland).

Making sounds with Stones

One thing I took part in on that trip in the fall of 1995 was a recording of Stones by Christian Wolff in the atelier of Burkhard Schlothauer’s apartment in Berlin. I love the disc, but the recording process itself was unforgettable. We had one rehearsal only: just enough to situate everyone to the recording environment and to see what people were doing. Each person made their own realization of the score, given minimal requirements from Antoine – I think ten sounds, however one wanted to understand that, to be made over the course of the 70 minutes duration of the recording. Naturally everyone had a different method of realizing the piece. Antoine had used chance procedures, and it had thrown up a need to make three sounds at once, quite a trick given the kinds of sounds he had chosen (involving balancing something and striking it in two different ways with stones simultaneously, if I remember correctly). This took some amusing acrobatics, but in the end came off successfully. Thomas Stiegler made every stone sound using his violin, intertwining pebbles with bow hair in the strings, dropping tiny stones on the body–it was like a miniature symphony in a violin. Burkhard dragged a large stone very gently over the floor of the atelier for a long, long time. Kunsu Shim’s sounds were all to occur within a period of about two minutes, 55 minutes into the recording. He sat without any visible motion (as far as we could tell, none whatsoever) for the first 55 minutes and then quietly, almost inaudibly, made ten extremely delicate sounds with a few very small pebbles and some cloth. Jürg Frey, as someone who had performed many pieces by Wolff, had determined, Wolff-style, to hinge a few of his sounds upon actions by others, unbeknownst to the people playing. By chance this had created a situation where the sign for the beginning of a sound and its end (i.e., the actions of two different performers) necessitated that he rub two good size stones over another gently for nearly half an hour. At the end of this Jürg was covered in white dust.

Listening to a Wandelweiser disc

The making of this recording and, especially the idea that we would release such a thing (as happened in 1996) is reflective of one of the most important features of the thinking that was taking place within Wandelweiser. Obviously a recording is different in many ways from a live performance. The most profound difference in my view is how one experiences them. A concert is a series of moments in which something indefinable passes through sound and between people. The moments are sensuously immersive (sights, sounds, feelings, smells, tastes), but impermanent. But you have a relationship with a recording. It can be a brief relationship – and can then somewhat resemble a performance. But the best recordings are lasting in their own particular and repetitive way.

A recording is also an artifact that doesn’t care what you do with it. You can listen to the same song 500 times; you can refuse to open it (c.f. Brian Olewnick’s review of Sectors (for Constant) by Sean Meehan); you can hang it on the wall, sell it or throw it away.

With recording, sound is stored for use. How do you use a recording like Stones? Do you just listen to it like anything else (perfectly possible in this case) or do you find ways of listening to it that suit the recording in other ways: say playing it all day at low volume (so that it can be forgotten, except for those very few moments when a sound rises to the surface, reminding you it’s still there). Or play it so loud that you hear everything.

In other words, the recording can be viewed as open, something like an instrument—a particular instrument that makes a limited set of sounds that can nonetheless have a variable relationship in the environment in which they are played. Although there are many discs in the Edition Wandelweiser catalog that can function as fairly normal listening experiences, their presence alongside those such as Stones, calme étendue (Spinoza), Branches, silent harmonies in discreet continuity, exercise 15, ein(e) ausführende(r) seiten 218 – 226, phontaine, Transparent City, and im sefinental (to name only the most obvious in this direction), creates an interesting double trajectory: from the recording as concept towards its use as music, and, conversely, the invitation to a listener to experiment in their own way with how to experience the more traditionally presented music. (I don’t mean to suggest that Wandelweiser owns or established this category – just that it plays a role in how I experience the music on any given EW disc.)

The first decade

So, after a while, as concerts started to happen (in Düsseldorf, Aarau, Zürich, Munich, Chicago, etc.) and discs started to be released (with an initial onslaught of eight in 1996) some attention was given to the group in the German speaking new music press and at various music festivals. The presences of Radu Malfatti (I didn’t know any of his work as an improviser yet) and Manfred Werder (having just returned from a few years in Paris) made themselves felt. At this stage (late ‘90s) Wandelweiser seemed very much like a German thing — not just as a basis of operations but where most of the things were happening. This was ironic, inasmuch as most of the members were not from Germany. (I have to add here that the “Swiss contingent” of Jürg and Manfred did a lot to make sure that Wandelweiser was not only a German thing, with many strong and memorable concert series in Aarau and Zürich.)

I’ve often wondered about this landing in Germany. It may have something to do with the high regard the American avant-garde was held in Europe, and in particular in Germany, compared to the status it had in the US at the time. It was often my impression that Cage, Feldman, Wolff, Lucier and the others had had a greater impact on the late 20th century musical life in central Europe than they had had in the US. The musical situation in the States, at least in classical and jazz music, had been flooded with more conciliatory voices: the minimalism of Glass and Reich, then the neo-Romantic attitudes struck by the majority of academic composers; in jazz this tendency was symbolized by Wynton Marsalis (coinciding with an apparent lack of momentum in free jazz, and very little improvised music to speak of). My friend, the musicologist Volker Straebel has called this period “the death of the American avant-garde” – and this was precisely what it felt like. So Europe in general, and Germany in particular, with its large resources for culture (even helping marginal enterprises like Wandelweiser) was more fertile ground.

There were two centers of Wandelweiser activity in Germany. Antoine, Kunsu, Marcus, André, Eva-Maria, percussionist Tobias Liebezeit, pianist John McAlpine, the artist Mauser, and for a while Carlo, his wife, Normisa Pereira da Silva and Radu all lived in and around Düsseldorf/Köln. Thomas Stiegler wasn’t too far away, in Frankfurt. Antoine has had an ongoing series at the Kunstraum in Düsseldorf since 1993. A huge number of Wandelweiser concerts have taken place there (the list itself would be a piece of a kind – just reading the way the titles change over the years is interesting – at least to me). There seemed to be just enough in the budget to bring musicians together, and so over the years many of us have come to feel that this place is a second musical home. (I just need to close my eyes to hear the sound of the rooms with Jürg Frey’s clarinet echoing through them.)

The artist Mauser (about whom more later) had his studio in nearby Cologne and this was another frequent performance location in the first decade. It was a very simple, fairly large and extremely pleasant studio space in the courtyard of an apartment building in a relatively quiet section of the city. Here the practice of daylong concerts (Ein Tag), developed by Mauser and Antoine, really found its footing. For a while these were yearly – and incredible – events, where either very long pieces or collections of pieces would be done alongside time based work in other media: visual arts performance and installation, video, dance and so on. Many would come and spend a few hours there, to watch some of the performance, and to relax on the patio under the trellis and have Kaffee und Kuchen. Others would spend nearly the whole time following the performance, even though often very little would be happening. Although I could only occasionally take part in events there, the days at Mauser’s are easily amongst my most memorable artistic experiences.

The other center of activity was Berlin. In the first decade the Verlag (the German word for publishing company) was there, housed by Burkhard at his business. Recordings (such as Stones) were made in Burkhard’s studio or in an old church near his house in the countryside a few hours away (Hohenferchesar). Former members Makiko Nishikaze, Chico Mello and Klaus Lang also lived in Berlin, at least part of the year. I was close by for the better part of a year in 1998/1999 on a fellowship from Künstlerhof Schreyahn. The musicologist and close friend to several in the group, Volker Straebel lives there. At the end of 1996 Carlo moved to Berlin. There, along with artist Christoph Nicolaus, he created one of the “founding” Wandelweiser situations. This project, called 3 jahre – 156 musikalische ereignisse – eine skulptur (3 years – 156 musical events – one sculpture) took place in the choir loft of the Zionskirche (in Mitte, directly across the street from Carlo, Normisa and their young son Matheo’s apartment), every Tuesday for 3 years, always promptly at 7:30 p.m. Each concert featured the premiere of a new 10-minute solo piece (plus the rotation of one of the pieces of Nicolaus' sculpture – which consisted of stone posts of various lengths laid on the old wood floor of the balcony). Although some friends outside the group wrote works (including amongst others, Peter Ablinger and Wolfgang von Schweinitz), the overwhelming majority of the new pieces came from Wandelweiser composers. I’d venture to say that if you see a ten-minute solo piece in the EW catalog from 1997 to 1999 it was written for this project. Cumulatively over the three years, thousands of people came to the concerts, and had their first experience of this music. Peter Ablinger once described to me his pleasure at taking an hour ride in the U-Bahn to hear a ten-minute concert (with a trip to a café or pub afterwards – where often long discussions would ensue).

In any case, even in Germany, we had to exist on a shoestring. All the discs and the performances (after the initial round) only happened because individuals in the group found a small opportunity to do something. A free space close by; the interest of a few creative performers; a little grant money: in sum nothing that would come close to funding an average size music festival, would be enough for several densely packed Wandelweiser events. (A typical example would be a week in Düsseldorf with concerts every evening and two on Saturday and Sunday – with new pieces being rehearsed by various groupings of the ensemble.)

When I look back over all the events that took place over the years (certainly in the hundreds, with probably close to one thousand pieces performed) I am amazed by how much can be done with little or no money (still pretty much the case) and relatively little public attention.

Different aesthetics under one roof

At this point I think I need to mention that Wandelweiser does not embody, as far as I’m concerned, a single aesthetic stance. To be sure, from the outside there appear to be a set of shared characteristics, including an interest in silence, duration and radical extension of Cagean ideas and the work that followed from it. In fact, fourteen years ago, these might have been terms more easily applied to (much of) the music – but even then there were lots of different ideas about where the music was going as well as important differences in taste and philosophical stance.

Here is a list of some of the things I can remember discussing with people in the first years (and this might help to suggest how diverse the set of influences and conditions were):

• There were several different ideas about which works of Cage were most valuable. It wasn’t only 4’33”, but the number pieces, 0’00”, Roaratorio, Music for __, the Variations, Empty Words, Cheap Imitation, the String Quartet (in Four Parts). What seemed to be at stake here was not only the status of silence, but of the relationship between silence and noise (“the noise of the world”), and the function of tone within that continuum. Beuger’s important essay Grundsätzliche Entscheidungen (1997) deals directly with this issue.

• The music of Wolff was critical for many of us. Christian was at the meeting in Boswil in 1991, where Antoine met Jürg Frey and Chico Mello. (Jakob Ullmann, Urs Peter Schneider, Ernstalberecht Stiebler and Dieter Schnebel were also there. Manfred Werder was in the audience for one of the performances.) Wolff has also been a great supporter of our music and many of us have worked closely with him on his (and our) music. Much of his music attempts to tap into the creative power of performance in an explicit way. Christian had been close friends with Cornelius Cardew, had worked with the Scratch Orchestra and had played with AMM – but this feature had been present in his music already quite early on, for instance in his For 1, 2 or 3 People (1964). While I would not call what happens in this piece improvisation, it does involve on the spot decision-making that people who have worked in improvised situations would immediately recognize. At the root, and this I think applies even more to Wolff’s music (where it has been pursued in many different ways) than Cage’s, there is an understanding of a composition as a stopping point, as opposed to an endpoint, in the whole process of creating music. For many of us (all of us?), Wolff proved a deeper source of inspiration for making new work than Feldman. (Which is not to say that Feldman’s work is not beautiful or helpful for some of us–it is.)

• There was, early on, and continues to be an ongoing curiosity about the depth and breadth of the experimental tradition, American or otherwise, with a special interest in some of the radical and obscure works. Antoine is especially gifted at uncovering little known, radical work. I first learned of Tomasz Sikorski, Michael von Biel, Maria Eichhorn, Robert Lax, Alain Badiou and even Douglas Huebler from him (this list could go on much longer). Thanks to Antoine, at one recent Wandelweiser event, Terry Jennings’ Piano Piece (1960) was performed and seemed to be right at home amongst pieces by some of us. At a concert in Neufelden (near Linz) this summer, the Wandelweiser Composers Ensemble played Toshi Ichiyanagi’s Sapporo (1962) and it almost felt as if it had been written for us to play.

• We have had occasional (but ongoing) discussions about the various directions jazz and improvised music has taken in the previous 30 years. This was important in the sense that it intersects in so many ways with the notions of indeterminacy. Radu, having worked his way from Jack Teagarden to Paul Rutherford and then beyond, brought a lot of experience and opinion to these discussions. But for myself as well, growing up in Chicago, playing jazz guitar, and hearing so much of the music of the various AACM combinations, this was an especially important issue. At the beginning there was little idea that what we were doing had much in common with what was going on improvised music – this would come later.

• There was a definite awareness of the importance of the German avant-garde: especially Helmut Lachenmann (with whom Kunsu had studied) and Matthias Spahlinger (with whom Thomas Stiegler had studied). From early on, some of the thinking about instruments and the use of sound, and above all, instrumental noise, was influenced in audible ways by these important figures.

As kind of a counterbalance there was an interest in many various small and strange things: art and music made by the various members of Fluxus, odd bits of poetry (Hans Faverey, Robert Creeley, Fernando Pessoa), the work of the Gugging artists and poets (especially Oswald Tschirtner) or, especially in my case, American vernacular music of the 1920’s and 1930’s (Harry Smith territory). For me these various oddball streams came together in the one-of-a-kind poetic work of Italian/Austrian poet Oswald Egger (who was introduced to Antoine through the publisher Thomas Howeg, Zurich).

• Over the years there have been many discussions amongst us concerning fundamental issues in making music. Because some of the ideas in the pieces attempt, in their own way, to get to the root of a particular musical situation, sometimes it has been helpful to use thought from outside. As Gilles Deleuze points out, philosophy has been, over the last three millennia, the main source of concept creation. (Science and mathematics in his view create “functions,” and art creates “percepts” – sensuous objects to be perceived.)

Each of us, without being anything like a professional philosopher (we’re more like non-professional philosophy readers), has drawn inspiration from philosophical work. This is very hard to talk about in depth without sounding pretentious, so I’m not going to. However, not mentioning it also seemed wrong – it’s an important part of the Wandelweiser atmosphere.

The conceptual background is present in a lot of the work we have shared (again, especially at first). I think it partially explains why, over certain periods an intense amount of activity was centered in one particular area of musical creation.

For a period in the mid- to late 1990’s there was a lot of work done, by several different composers, on the solo piece. Behind it is, I think, an interest in the number 1. This led to a great number of very diverse pieces: exploring the unit of time structure (first music for marcia hafif, stück 1998, für sich), being alone (tout à fait solitaire), the sonic features of one instrument (die geschichte des sandkorns, kammerkomplex, mind is moving, die temperatur der bedeutung), an expanse of limitless time (calme étendue, ein(e) ausführende(r)) or the disappearance of perceived time altogether (ins ungebundene, a certain species of eternity) – to mention a few of the many works. One thing that has always been striking about this work to me, is the tangible presence of the performer when not playing. This is something that is never communicated on a recording – the continuity of the sound and silence is borne by the particular person, whose singular presence is more important than anything written on the page.

At some point the duo (or “twoness”) came into something of a focus (early on, mostly in the work of Jürg Frey, but then most recently by Beuger). Looking at the pieces, one sees a world of difference between 1 and 2, in musical terms. It’s hard to avoid the idea that two in music always implies, at the very least, relationship – if not love. [Lovaty, zwischen, dedekind duos, 2 ausführende, and two/too.]

The most important conversation

Many important exchanges happened during the rehearsal process. We all spent a great deal of time getting to know each other’s music by playing it. The Wandelweiser Composers Ensemble is a group of sympathetic performers who nonetheless bring their own styles of playing and thinking. One writes for individuals rather than instruments. When Antoine, Jürg, Radu, Manfred or Marcus play on one of my compositions, I know that their musical character will permeate the work. And I know that their way of playing it will tell me things about my own piece that I could not have known without them. Even the simplest looking piece takes on a curious afterlife, as one sorts through what happened to it in the hands of one's friends.

As Jürg Frey has said: the most important conversations took place not in words, but in the music itself, from one piece to another; with one person going a different direction with very similar material to what the other had used. Seen in this way, it is only by getting inside the individual works that one sees the energy that is at play amongst this group of musicians: where notions of what is similar and what is different are replaced by much more complicated (and interesting) trajectories and tensions.

Radu brilliantly summarized to me the coming together, the commonality and the differences in this way:

I think that these things [i.e., the ideas of what we were doing] are there anyway and that "creative" people are only those who pick it up earlier then the rest, or hear it, or feel it sooner. In the Wandelweiser situation: Who started it? Who is a "follower"? I think we all started to become interested in similar things, even coming from very different angles and directions and therefore we met and got together and felt a mutual understanding right away.

A river delta

That’s the image I can best use to describe what has started to happen as a result of all these conversations over the years, as our work has developed. What might have seemed at first like something of a single narrow stream, has proved to be capable of some variety. Early on, I took pleasure in the fact that I was never quite sure exactly whose piece I was hearing. The overlap and the sense of a truly shared language was exciting and inspiring. Now I take pleasure in being able to recognize, sooner rather than later, whose piece it is – even as it continues to be part of the same stream.


Antoine introduced me to the monochrome painting of Marcia Hafif, an American artist. The idea behind this work was that “one” kind of material (that is, one color and kind of paint) was already multiple. It is, abstractly, one color, but in reality, when the paint is applied to the canvas by hand, there are many miniscule variations in tone and texture. The fact that the description was simple but the reality complex, did not fall on blind eyes or deaf ears. It is interesting how revealing a choice of a favorite artist can be. Jürg Frey loves the still life painting of Giorgio Morandi: and thus it becomes possible to see in his work the subtle, careful, endless shift of the same basic material – each time somehow just new enough to engage you, and to make you more deeply aware of the possibilities for expression with limited means. It won’t surprise anyone that Manfred Werder is fascinated by the conceptual artists. I can remember him reading Lucy Lippard’s Six Years: The dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972 like it was a suspense novel. Carlo Inderhees has been influenced by the work of On Kawara. (That makes sense, doesn’t it?) Although I love all this art, recently my own tastes run to James Turrell, Juan Muñoz and some of the installations of Sarah Sze. As these exchanges started, I had the sense that much had happened in the realm of the visual arts that had no parallel with developments in music (Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Dan Flavin, Agnes Martin, etc.). Perhaps, with all of the interesting work done in experimental music in the last 15 years, this has started to change.

The presence of one artist-musician and two great artist friends of Wandelweiser is a very significant (if in the US, seldom visible) part of the group.

Mauser introduced himself to Antoine at a concert of John Cage’s in Cologne in the early 1990’s. His work, which kept evolving right up until his death in 2006, was a significant part of the Wandelweiser environment. Entering Mauser’s studio for the first time in 1995, I at first thought it was devoid of art. As we sat and talked, the sun shifted and I became aware of very light, somehow luminous squares on the walls. At some point it was clear that they weren’t just effects of the light, but artworks: very fine translucent paper had been fixed to the wall, and the paper caught light to varying degrees, depending upon the angle with which the light hit it. Could anything be simpler? But nothing is as easy as it looks. The art appeared and disappeared magically and seemed to have its own un-emphatic duration. It had taken Mauser decades of very hard work, filled with uncertainty, to arrive at this solution: at once clear in concept and unbelievably sensual (you took it all in with your eyes before your brain started working). It became a model for musical work for some of us.

The artist Christoph Nicolaus has been a close friend to several in the group for nearly as long as it has existed. Christoph does many kinds of work: drawing, photography, video and other media. Much of his work is durational in nature: collecting single drops of water from various sources every day and storing them in glass containers (where they create beautiful “clouds” of evaporation); photographing the same location at the same times every year (in spring, summer, fall and winter); making a daily drawing using the sun and a magnifying glass to burn narrow, straight lines onto paper (dark brown images which nonetheless retain the luminosity of the sun). With his ongoing series Garonne, he is making a very large set of videos of rivers (having already covered much of the world to do this) according to a very simple principle: finding a bridge and filming directly down on both sides, using autofocus, as long as the battery holds out (thus creating a series of ca. 60 minute videos, paired for each river, with water flowing from the top to the bottom of the screen in one, and from the bottom to top of the screen in the other). An installation presents a collection of 2 to 6 rivers shown simultaneously, chosen at random from the pile. The differences are astounding: the colors (all shades of green, brown, black, orange and blue), the flow, the wind and weather, the kinds of debris – one would never imagine how singular each river could appear. One of my favorite Wandelweiser events was the exhibition of these videos in Berlin in 1998, simultaneous with Carlo’s solo cello piece für sich. Carlo’s music and Christoph’s videos were in profound harmony – something “multi-media” art often strives for, but rarely achieves. Nicolaus has installed a beautiful collection of Mauser’s work in his large apartment in Munich and hosts monthly concerts there under the title Klang im Turm. It is one of the central current locations for Wandelweiser events.

The least classifiable member of Wandelweiser is Marcus Kaiser. He is a cellist–painter–architect–composer–builder/designer–maker of sound pieces–video artist. Marcus does not juggle these activities – he works on all of them simultaneously as if they were part of some vast rhizomatic assemblage. He paints jungles the way they grow: adding layer after layer of green until it is nearly a monochrome. He records individual layers of sound regularly over the course of many days, until, when simultaneously played back, these recordings reach a point of near saturation (in which, however, sonic features remain distinguishable). He designs desks that serve as workspaces in a communal environment. His work is grand in scope, but not oversized; it is bold, but presented with gentleness and humility. (These last two are deeply personal qualities that anyone who knows Marcus will recognize.)

Mild weather / distant thunder (Wandelweiser events)

Although over the years there has been great variety in the location, structure and personnel involved in the concerts, the character of a Wandelweiser event has some constants: A great deal of music; many discussions; the feeling of good-natured friendship and community.

A strong reaction from someone else (“I really did/did not like that, and here’s why.”) can serve to clarify one’s own thinking. However, in my experience the interactions that emerged from Wandelweiser events, have usually taken place in an atmosphere of general support — where it is a given that one would continue to care about and for the other, regardless of aesthetic differences.

Antoine, who in Düsseldorf has staged more large-scale Wandelweiser events than any of the rest of us, has always been particularly clear in his feelings about this matter (and is himself a good model for the attitude): people should not feel “wounded” by presenting their work or ideas. Critique does happen, but to me it has seemed rather far down the list of things to accomplish during one of these gatherings. In any case, with a group of close friends, one usually knows how they feel about one's work. Over the long run, sympathies and differences will make themselves clear in the decisions made in the work itself (as if individual works were part of larger picture). For instance, starting in the mid-90’s one could follow the use of the bass (or low) drum duo from work to work, composer to composer: Ohne Titel (für Agnes Martin) (Frey, 1994/95), fourth music for marcia hafif no. 3 (Beuger, 1997), time, presence, movement / one sound (Pisaro, 1997) – finally becoming four such instruments in Malfatti’s l'effaçage (2001). A close look at these four apparently similar pieces would reveal subtle but substantial differences in approach. Although each piece can stand alone, there is also a (wordless) discussion going on between them. There are many such discussions in the Wandelweiser catalog.

None of this means that striking events are avoided — quite the contrary. But these tend to be shocks produced by the works themselves. If I think about some of these: the first time I experienced Beuger’s nine hour composition, calme étendue; the endless (and occasionally hilarious) stream of Swiss birds and valleys in Jürg Frey’s Lovaty; the way the density of Marcus Kaiser’s incredible jungle paintings permeates his cello playing; the radical juxtaposition of control and freedom in Radu’s Düsseldorf Vielfaches; the 15-second summary of the orchestral experience contained in Manfred Werder’s 2008-1 (just to mention the first five that come to mind), shook me as an artist in a way no harsh words could ever do. I’m still dealing with these events. (In part, my summer two-week festival, the dog star orchestra, is an attempt to find some kind of North American / West Coast parallel to these concert meetings.)

Beyond the creative impetus received from discussions and exchanges of ideas, there was, above all, the pleasure of wonderful performances of the music. In addition to the members of the Wandelweiser Composers Ensemble, we have each been very lucky to work with performers whose dedication to the music and to the people making it is responsible in part for the continuity of the work being made.

Here I tip my hat to a special group of musicians who have kept faith for many years in a spirit of friendship and generosity: pianist John McAlpine, percussionist Tobias Liebezeit, oboist Kathryn Pisaro, speaker Sandra Schimag, accordionist Edwin Alexander Buchholz, the Quatour Bozzini (Clemens Merkel, Nadia Francavilla and Isabelle and Stéphanie Bozzini), violist Julia Eckhardt of Q-02 and Incidental Music, flutist Normisa Pereira da Silva, cellist Stefan Thut, percussionist Greg Stuart, pianist Jongah Yoon, pianist Guy Vandromme and saxophonist Ulrich Krieger. I can’t imagine our music without the creative participation of these people.

A few statements about composition (concepts, structures, sounds)

Let us call a musical concept an idea or thought about music at some remove from the embodiment of the thing itself.

A written composition contains a concept of how a particular music should be made. (In this way, all written music is conceptual.)

In a composition, a small, clear concept might be preferred to a large, overarching one. (For this way of thinking, better a piece that takes up the simple coincidence or non-coincidence of two players than one that seeks to redefine orchestration.)

There is greater diversity to be found in a collection of clear concepts than in a collection of overarching ones.

Clear concepts can sometimes lead to perplexing results: results that test the powers of perception on some level and are conscious of that test. One kind of sonic pleasure is connected to the effort the mind of the listener makes to understand (or properly hear) the sound situation initiated by the composition.

The musical situation will get some degree of its structure from the composition; but the composition cannot account for everything. In the written work, something might be said about the time, or sound, or player or instrument (or all of these), but it is essential to keep in mind that much (most?) of the sonic reality will occur in the situation itself.

The performers of the work are capable of being aware of the concept and the structure given by the composition, and of making active decisions at the same time.

There is no clear and logical way to affix a percentage of creation or responsibility to any one of the musical actors. The music arises as a result of a whole set of circumstances, almost as if, once set in motion, it is doing the acting and the thinking.

The process described here is independent of conventional notions of what might or might not sound good, what is easy or difficult to grasp, or what is easy or difficult to listen to.

At its best the surface of the music (i.e., the sounding result) will be engaging enough to draw a listener into the world of the piece. It is inside this world in that significant artistic events (moments that can alter the way we hear and understand music) transpire.

There is nothing wrong with a beautiful surface, placid and composed, despite its contact with musical upheaval.

Where are we now?

Over the years the network of people associated with Wandelweiser has expanded. The regular concerts taking place in Aarau, Düsseldorf, Munich, Zürich, and Los Angeles, along with semi-regular ones in New York, Berlin, London, Vienna, Chicago and Tokyo have done a lot to make people aware of the music and to draw people to it. Given that new music is being written constantly and then performed, the concerts are still the frontline of activity (and represent much more than could ever be recorded and released).

As is probably already clear, the openness of much of this work to environmental sound, its more than occasional extended duration, and the frequent use of indeterminacy means that in most cases there is no such thing as a “repeat” performance: the second performance of a piece (in a different context or with different performers) can feel like another premiere. So we all, even after all these years, continue to find many reasons to perform each other’s work, and often serve as advocates for it (which seems to be a rare thing – it was at least seldom found in the contemporary music environment in which I grew up).

Now, mainly through personal contact and involvement in performances, there are also a number of musicians of a younger generation who take Wandelweiser as one of their starting points. As influence is such a tenuous thing, it would be hard to know where to begin or to end a list of these musicians. It’s probably best to say that, for a group of younger musicians, the music of Wandelweiser is a part of the experimental music atmosphere in which they learned to breathe.

The recent compact disc recordings are, as in the past, not an extension of, but a complement to the concerts. As mentioned above, many of the more interesting EW discs represent things that could never have been performed as such. To choose recent examples, both Antoine Beuger’s too, with recordings of separate duos made in Düsseldorf (Jürg Frey and Irene Kurka), and Tokyo (Rhodri Davies and Ko Ishikawa) combined to make a new piece out of two other pieces — and the duo field recording performance disc by Manfred Werder and Stefan Thut do not represent possibilities available in a concert space (Im Sefinental). My two most recent discs on the label are also examples: both realizations of an unrhymed chord were specifically designed as recordings, and hearing metal 1 is a work for recorded percussion to begin with.

It is here perhaps that the music of the Wandelweiser group shares something with some interesting recordings on labels such as Erstwhile, Improvised Music From Japan, Slub Music, Hibari, Another Timbre, Manual, Cathnor, Confront, Potlatch and others that seem ostensibly more concerned with improvised music. Recent releases on these labels also often confound notions of live and recorded means, and blur the line between what has been spontaneously invented (or improvised) and what is composed (or assembled) in the studio. Perhaps this sense of shared territory is one of the reasons that EW releases have found a successful outlet in the US in Erstwhile distribution (erstdist).

I’ve recently started thinking about how much overlap there is between these apparently different enterprises. It is not uncommon for improvisers these days to limit or fix aspects of their performance before playing. One might set a total duration beforehand (as Radu likes to do), or bring only a certain limited set of materials or an (apparently) limited instrument (such as Sachiko M’s sine wave sampler). Or perhaps an improvisational work might find itself in a context where composed works have also been played (a practice which AMM has long engaged in). Recently in concerts and on recordings, works by Sugimoto or Cage might be understood as belonging to “repertoire” of an ensemble that most often improvises. While I think it’s fair to say that something is being shared by these various musical streams, I would prefer at the moment not to name what that is (in part because I have no idea what to call it). At the moment I feel that this unnamed area has a tremendous potential going forward.

Non-national music

Despite its base in Germany, Wandelweiser is not a national style or trend. It was remarkable that people from Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, Brazil, Korea, Japan and the US felt they had much more in common musically (and often personally) than they did with their own countrymen. The American experimental tradition was gone (or at least, not a part of our generation) and this was being replaced by something else. Whatever it might be called, it was certainly not the province of one national way of thinking about music or making music. Outside of the countries where the members of Wandelweiser live, there have been a couple of strong developments in the last several years.

For nearly ten years now a set of shared musical activity has existed between many members of Wandelweiser and experimental musicians in the UK. My wife Kathy and I had the opportunity to get to know something of the scene in London in 1996. As she was there doing her dissertation research on the Scratch Orchestra, we had the chance to meet and talk to John Tilbury, Howard Skempton, Michael Parsons and many others (and we heard AMM live for the first time in Chicago not long thereafter). During our stay in London, I learned of the music of Laurence Crane, who I managed to meet on the next trip over. Shortly thereafter, Manfred Werder came into contact with two composers with whom members of Wandelweiser have since often worked: Tim Parkinson and James Saunders. (To this list of UK collaborators, I would also add composers Markus Trunk and John Lely, though this list is growing rapidly.) Members of Wandelweiser have performed at INSTAL (Glasgow) in both 2008 and 2009, and this has led to more contact with the vibrant experimental improvisation community in the UK and elsewhere.

Radu Malfatti had of course lived once in England, but is, as usual, a special case. Since his musical shift, many of his friends from that earlier era were no longer on speaking terms with him. However a whole new set of associations with a younger generation developed – mostly improvisers, in London and Berlin, who looked to him as a trailblazer in a new style of making music. (There are simply too many names here to mention!)

The Tokyo Connection

To close this section, I’d like to say just a little about the relationship that has developed in recent years between Wandelweiser and some musicians from Japan.

Some of these, in retrospect, had something like an aura of inevitability. Certainly, to choose one example, Toshiya Tsunoda’s somewhat “hands-off” approach to field recording (already present in the very beautiful recordings of 1997) — something I think of as steady state recordings of silence — are not so far away from thinking we in Wandelweiser might have recognized (had any of us known of it then).

When Taku Sugimoto first contacted Radu Malfatti in July of 2000 it might have come more or less out of the blue, but if one looks for a moment at the music coming out of Tokyo from at least the mid-90’s onward there is a sense that there too something radical, having to do with the fundamental nature of sound and silence, was at work. The world of Opposite is not so far from that of Beinhaltung, that of The World Turned Upside Down not so far from the one of Dach. In any event, as their work together (such as Futatsu) amply demonstrates, there was a quick understanding between these two great musicians.

When Taku Unami began distributing Wandelweiser discs through Hibari in 2004, the music became much better known (and apparently, appreciated) amongst experimental musicians in Japan. Both Radu and Manfred (starting in 2004) have worked there several times, along with, most recently, Antoine. In a short time some beautiful musical projects between these musicians have developed — including most recently some wonderful recordings: Manfred Weder’s 20061 on Toshiya Tsunoda’s Skiti label, A Young Person’s Guide to Antoine Beuger (produced by Sugimoto for his Slub Music label), and kushikushism, a duo project by Radu Malfatti and Taku Unami (also on Slub Music).

Antoine told me a story that may or may not be symbolic of the way in which Wandelweiser is understood in Japan, especially amongst younger artists. When Manfred, Radu and he visited Tokyo in November of 2007, Antoine received many discs, often without any labeling, from young musicians. One particular musician gave him a few, explaining in each case, which ones were “more Wandelweiser” and “less Wandelweiser.” On one of the “more Wandelweiser” discs, there appeared to be no sound at all.

As I’ve become acquainted recently with much more of the music made in Japan by experimental musicians from the “onkyo” group and its offshoots, I’ve returned to the thought behind Radu’s comment above many times. Sometimes the concerns, if not the music, seem so similar as if to be almost identical: as if a group of ideas was circulating of which no one was directly conscious – as if they had no real point of origin and were able to place themselves anywhere they could find a “host.”

In the music of Sachiko M and Toshimaru Nakamura there is (or can be) such an intense stillness. Where does it come from? How available is it to others? In the work of these musicians with Keith Rowe I find an inspiring parallel to some of the music I got to know with my Wandelweiser friends. To be sure, there are many differences: the prevalence of electric over acoustic instruments, the fact that the music is improvised, and the various lineages that the musicians have within their traditions, to name the most obvious. Nonetheless, the stillness, the silence and the serene beauty; the sense of taking your time and trusting your audience to take the time with you; the evolution of the work and the sense that an active exploration is going on; to me these suggest a deeper kinship. Perhaps the most representative (and beautiful) example of this is the work of these three (with Otomo Yoshihide) at the incredible concert in Berlin on May 14, 2004, documented on ErstLive 005 – particularly on the final disc.

When I think about our group now, and especially the large set of friends of this music, I wonder if some of the most fragile seeds planted in the mid-century, by Cage and the experimental tradition, by the certain subgroups within free jazz and improvised music communities, and by the quiet experimental tendencies in Japan (Toshi Ichiyanagi, Yuji Takahashi) have, after spending many years underground started to spring to life: invisibly – everywhere.

Summer/Fall, 2009

I would like to thank Jon Abbey, Manfred Werder, Radu Malfatti and Antoine Beuger for their help with this article.


1. the wandelweiser composers ensemble (joachim eckl)
2. antoine beuger (hartmut becker)
3. john cage (ben martin)
4. jimi hendrix (photographer unknown)
5. desert plants (unknown)
6. stones (CD cover/ida maibach)
7. zionskirche (unknown)
8. christian wolff (unknown)
9. gilles deleuze (still from French TV)
10. radu malfatti/mattin (yuko zama)
11. mauser in his studio (marianne hambach)
12. sonnenzeichnungen (nicolaus) (kathryn pisaro)
13. marcus kaiser (in sook kim)
14. kunstraum (with eva-maria houben, john mcalpine, michael pisaro) (renate hoffmann korth, ew website)
15. wolff.beuger.frey (silvia kamm-gabathuler, ew website)
16. sachiko m/dan flavin installation (yuko zama)
17. taku sugimoto/radu malfatti (eleen deprez)
18. keith rowe/sachiko m/toshimaru nakamura/otomo yoshihide (yuko zama)