Another Timbre TimHarrisonbre
at121 Early to Late
1 - Magnus Granberg ‘How Vain Are All Our Frail Delights?’ (2017) 40.50 youtube extract
2 - Jürg Frey ‘Late Silence’ (2017) 32.30 youtube extract
Ensemble Grizzana: Jürg Frey (clarinet), Magnus Granberg (celesta, harmonica & stones)
Angharad Davies & Mira Benjamin (violins), Anton Lukoszevieze (cello), Dominic Lash (double bass),
John Lely (electronics, harmonica & stones), Richard Craig (flute & electronics), Philip Thomas (piano),
Simon Allen (dulcimer & glass harp), Dimitra Lazaridou-Chatzigoga (zither & electronics)
Recorded at Huddersfield University, November 2017
Jürg Frey and Magnus Granberg interviewed by Dominic Lash
Dominic - I'd like to ask about the titles of the two pieces. They're both so resonant and evocative. Late Silence makes me think of Late Spring, the Ozu film. I think the music has something of the same patience and poise – but also underlying tension and pathos – that one finds in that film. How Vain Are All Our Frail Delights obviously comes from the Philip Sidney poem that William Byrd set to music; I find I can't decide whether the music echoes or challenges the emotional register of the title. Would you both like to say something about the titles?
Jürg – Not being a movie connoisseur, I hadn’t heard of Late Spring by Ozu, but I
may appreciate this connection with Ozu. For me Late Silence means a field of allusions,
and today I was looking back in my sketchbook to find how I came to the title. And
it's interesting that I didn’t find this title anywhere in the sketchbook, but I
did find some other attempts and words that circle round the possibilities of a title:
"Desires, Delights, Vainness" (which obviously comes from the Byrd composition) "Secret Garden", "The colour(s) of absence", "Fragility", "Deploration" (which comes from the Ockeghem piece), "Volatile Voices, Motionless Phrases". "Clouds, Circles, Melodies, Silences". "Ground, Material, Place".
It seems that the title "Late Silence" came to the piece without a clear elaborated reason, but was prepared by the field of associations of other possible titles. It was suddenly there, and it displaced all the other words and allusions into the background.
This combination of process and sudden illumination is part of my experience not
just for titles, but also for the work on a piece itself. And then, I feel, the title
is right, and now I have to reflect and to find the words for my decision.
Late silence, late pieces - we know this connection to the late work of a composer, and the title speaks to this context too. And it's also a reference to the title Déploration sur la mort de Binchois, by Johannes Ockeghem. It's a lamentation for the dead and the knowledge of a deep silence.
And not least, it's a reflection on my work over a long time. After having written so many kinds of silences within the last 40 years, more and more I discover silence in the music itself.
Calm and silence are close to each other, but separated. The music creates a secure
room. As long as music sounds, we are inside this secure room. In the music of Ockeghem
and Byrd, this room seems to be safe. In my music it's fragile and subtle, even the
pathos and the tension you mention seem to be on frail ground.
Magnus – As you said, the title of my piece is a fragment from the poem by Philip Sydney which was set to music by William Byrd in his consort song ’O, Lord How Vain’, which itself served as an impetus for the music I wrote. Using a fragment of the lyrics of the song is on the one hand simply a way of recognizing and paying homage to the music that inspired me to write the piece, but on the other hand also reflects the method by which I use source materials from pre-existent musics as a point of departure for generating something different. Whether the music echoes or challenges the emotional register of the title is very much up to each one of us; there is no programmatic intent on my behalf. But from a strictly personal point of view, I’d say that I’m inclined to echo as much as challenge the question posed in Sidney’s poem: echoing it in the sense that the question he poses is in fact one that I’ve asked myself on a more or less a daily basis for some decades now. Challenging it, as Sidney suggests, not by disdaining all these pleasures, but by trying to treasure the ones that are worth treasuring. I guess all these ‘frail delights’ are simply what we’re left with in the end, and having the talent to cherish and enjoy them will probably make you a happier human being. Or, if I may put it this way: the frailer the delight, the greater the joy…
Dominic - I believe that the commission for these pieces specifically involved writing music in some kind of relation to the pieces by Byrd and Ockeghem that you mentioned. Could you tell us a bit more about this?
Jürg - When Magnus and I met with Simon Reynell in a café in Huddersfield in autumn 2015, Simon commissioned new pieces from us both. He also expressed a wish that the music should have some kind of relation to Renaissance music. It was a very open commission, with the musicians of the Grizzana Ensemble plus friends in mind, and this hint of a connection with early music.
From one of Simon's Facebook posts, maybe three years ago, I knew he had a special relation to Déploration sur la mort de Binchois by Ockeghem. It was one of his favourite pieces to listen to at the time. And that's how I came across the piece and I listened to it quite often as well. So when Simon asked me for the new piece, it was clear that I would take it as a starting point. Later Magnus suggested How Vain Are All Our Frail Delights by Byrd, and I remember some lovely discussions with Magnus about how to proceed – using both of the pieces or just one of them, and which one, and could we agree on one piece or should we just leave it open.
Dominic - Could you tell us a little more about how the pieces were composed and notated? They give the performers very different tasks, and I'd also be interested to hear your thoughts about playing in each other's piece.
Magnus - Well, my piece basically consists of a few different pools of materials (containing melodic and rhythmic fragments, extended melodies, single notes, chords, suggestions regarding timbre etc.) notated in conventional staff notation, along with some suggestions as to how to treat them, as well as a temporal structure which regulates when to play from which group of materials. Within these groups or pools of materials the musicians are free to choose what to play and when to play it, and the final outcome is very much a result of the superimpositions, juxtapositions and interactions of the musical materials, as well as of individual and collective processes of listening, deciding (intuitively or consciously), acting and interacting, or not interacting, with one another.
As regards how the musical materials themselves were composed, I took both Byrd’s and Ockeghem’s pieces as points of departure, using Byrd’s song somewhat more than the Ockeghem. Rhythmic phrases were sometimes quoted, sometimes fragmented or altered, at other times transposed to other meters, or rewritten as augmentations or diminutions. Running through the piece is a so-called ‘cantus firmus’, an extended melody in shifting meters which is played by the clarinet more or less throughout (and at times also by other instruments). Its shifting rhythms were arrived at by combining small modules of rhythmic materials derived from the two pieces. The tonal modes were also derived from both pieces as well as from a song by Jerome Kern, ’In Love in Vain’, which I got to thinking about while writing the piece, and which somehow started to resonate with me. The tonal and rhythmic materials were then subjected to certain methods and procedures in order to craft the melodic and harmonic materials that constitute the piece. As regards the temporal framework which regulates the ordering of the different groups of materials, it uses proportions found in the source materials, each group of materials being combined with a new time value more or less each time they reappear.
I think that the experience of playing Jürg’s piece is quite different from playing mine. In Jürg’s score we are coordinated with one another to a much larger extent, and that demands particular forms of concentration, discipline and sensibility. This is obviously a different way of working and being within the music than when you’re allowed a greater amount of individual freedom of action, and the aspects of concentration, discipline and sensibility take on different forms. But I also think the two pieces have many things in common, and I’d be very interested to hear your perspective on the experience of playing in both pieces as well, Dominic.
Jürg - When I play a piece like Magnus' How vain, I'm involved as a clarinettist
as well as a composer. As clarinet player, it was first of all a pleasure to play
the music because everything sounded so good, the blending of the clarinet with glass
harmonica, celesta, piano and zither was incredible. But it was also great to be
in contact with the strings, the electronics and the colourful electronically modulated
sounds of the flute, creating such a lively navigation through the whole duration
of the music.
And I really appreciated the role that Magnus invented for me with the cantus firmus, which is usually a prominent part of a composition. It does seem to be some kind of "subject" in this piece too, but then the score says: The Cantus Firmus is (...) to be played very softly, almost silently. And later: (...) the Cantus Firmus at times only being present within the mind of the performer.
From the point of view of a composer, I likewise enjoyed how good the piece sounded. So many different fragments fitting together perfectly, and foreground and background balanced in an enigmatic way. It maintains a perpetual suspense across forty minutes, and when I’d seen the score for the first time, I’d just seen a huge collection of snippets...
For my piece, the material comes from Ockeghem, Byrd and myself - like three standpoints that are not mixed. The materials from Ockeghem and Byrd are used literally or slightly changed. So, for example, at the beginning of the piece, the hammered dulcimer and clarinet play the Byrd tune (and later Ockeghem, and then again Byrd), the violins play the Ockeghem melody, rhythmically transformed, and I myself added two notes for the piano, "a" and "g". This behaviour regarding the material is established at the very beginning in a strict way, and is also effective for decisions through the whole piece.
This process also speaks to a general focus in my daily work: how to find my music, be it in the notes from Ockeghem or in my own material. Recently I read this sentence by William Carlos Williams, which I’d like to quote here: "The same thing exists, but in a different condition when energized by imagination".
Dominic - For me playing both pieces was very much to do with both trust and fragility, but in rather different senses. The way your piece is composed, Magnus, it almost feels like it can't go "wrong" if the musicians approach it with the right intention and spirit. Obviously some versions will be more successful than others, but that is beyond anybody's control. So the process of playing required great attentiveness, but was actually a calm and comfortable experience as long as you trusted the group and the music – in a sense the fragility seemed to lie more in the sounding result than the execution.
With your piece, Jürg, there was a different kind of tension because it requires precise things to be played at very precise times. So this produced a slightly different kind of trust, which involved trusting the fragile balance (to echo the title of another of your pieces) between the various musicians and their various tasks as it developed in time. This balance was perhaps a little more like a tightrope walker's balance than is the case in Magnus's piece!
Magnus - Yes, I agree that concepts of trust and fragility relate to both Jürg’s and my music and feel central to both our work. And I think you’re right in pointing to the differences in how these concepts apply in these two cases. Being a composer-performer with a background in improvisation, and mostly playing my own music, it was wonderful getting to play Jürg’s music and to experience how differently these two concepts applied, while still having the most important aspects of them in common: the question of having trust in each other as individuals as well as a collective, and having trust in the music itself. And, if I may put it this way, to recognise and value the fragility of this trust.
Dominic - Both pieces are very beautiful, but they don’t just contain obviously "beautiful" sounds – they also have elements of noise, of roughness, of plainness. I'm reminded of a well-known interview with Helmut Lachenmann by Paul Steenhuisen, in which he talks about teaching a class of children and showing them two photographs:
“One was an attractive photograph of the movie star Sophia Loren. The other was a drawing by Albrecht Dürer, who had drawn a picture of his mother: very old, with a long nose, a bitter-looking face. She had had a hard life and her face was full of wrinkles. I showed them the two pictures and asked, 'Who is more beautiful?' They were totally confused, and then came a wonderful answer I will never forget – it was the highlight of my life. A girl said, 'I think the ugly one is more beautiful.'”
Does this kind of dialectical thinking have a relevance to the aesthetics of your musics? Or are there different kinds of relationships between the "beautiful" and the "not-beautiful" at work?
Magnus - I guess most of us share the experience of the little girl in Lachenmann’s lovely anecdote: sometimes finding that things which deviate from a conventional and exclusive concept of beauty can be richer, more complex and rewarding, and more ‘truly’ beautiful than things that adhere exclusively to a more conventional and narrow definition of beauty. That said (and not being an expert either on aesthetics in general, or on dialectical aesthetics in particular), I guess I’m just trying to make a music which can hopefully do something to encompass and reconcile such categories with one another, making it a little easier to perceive and understand things without attaching too many preconceived notions to them. To be able to delight in the fragility of experience itself, I guess.
Jürg - I don’t want to stay too long with the Lachenmann quote; I think it says more about him than about the complexity of our experience of beauty. And – though in the context of that class it may work - I also think that for Lachenmann himself it’s not as simple as ‘the ugly is beautiful and vice versa’, as we know from his music. Moreover it refers to something that we know well from other music: Monteverdi, Mozart ... all the sad, ugly, terrible moments in their music which sound so incredibly beautiful.
I looked at the two pictures on my computer - the drawing by Albrecht Dürer and a casual photograph of Sophia Loren - and I must confess that I can’t make a quick and easy decision. The two pictures represent separate categories and I see a very clear dividing line between them. Sophia Loren looks at the photographer, Albrecht Dürer looks at his mother.
The one is Sophia Loren, she looks beautiful, and she knows it. The other is Dürer’s mother, she doesn’t care how she looks, but it was Dürer who drew the picture, and with all his craft and imagination he made this impressive work, and he knows it.
Let me talk about my experience when I compose. Now I’m in Dürer’s place and I use all the possibilities of my craft to make a piece that sounds good, independently of whether the sounds are in the conventional sense beautiful or not. I like my sounds, I have a relation to them and I want to give them the possibility of existing in my piece. I create a ground and a musical environment for them to sound good. And I’m looking for reasons for them to be beautiful.
But to sound beautiful is not a task in itself. Beauty happens as a sideline. When beauty comes into focus as an end in itself, then beauty begins to disappear. The work may touch a border, but I keep the idea of beauty outside.
I also know this: sometimes sounds might come in the Sophia Loren mood; they pose for the audience. But it's not the sounds themselves that do so, it’s the composer who doesn’t prevent the sound from doing so.
I have never thought about the ugly and the beautiful in a dialectic sense in my music. Beauty is fluid, and even authenticity, as an idea behind beauty, is not a sure fact; it’s fragile and has to be worked out anew in each piece. I never consider the fragile surface in my music as a source of beauty. I can say this because during the process of composing I encounter so many fragile sounds and they are not all beautiful. But I discover music and the possibilities of bringing it to life, at least for a moment.