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Interview with Cristián Alvear

You live thousands of miles from Jürg on a different continent. So how did this disc come about?

After I recorded and Edition Wandelweiser published Antoine Beuger's 24 petits préludes pour la guitare, Richard Pinnell reviewed the préludes for The Watchful Ear. Before he published the review, he contacted me to ask if I'd be interested in recording Jürg's guitar music, and of course, I said yes. I immediately wrote to Jürg and he sent me the scores. He also told me he wanted to write a new piece for the project, which became guitarist, alone. I started working on my versions soon afterwards, making demos for Jürg to listen to and comment on. 

So how long did it to take to produce the final versions of Jurg’s pieces? Was there a long process of trying different things and responding to Jurg’s comments?

The whole process took a year and a half. I sent Jürg demos every month, 3 or more pieces each time depending on the length in order to have time to discuss the final version. Then I went to the studio and made the recording. We did this almost every month. It was a lot of work. I've never worked with a composer in this way, and being able to do so gives you a unique approach and, you might say, a unique perspective on someone's work. I learned a lot.

Go on, tell us a couple of the things you learned.

Antoine Beuger’s préludes were the first Wandelweiser pieces I had played, so, as you can imagine, I was fairly new to this kind of music. While working on Jürg’s pieces I had to develop a series of technical approaches, all quite different from what I was used to. For example, I had to learn how to move and lift my fingers - in coordination with my right hand - over the fingerboard without making any noise. Also I had to think a lot about the use of harmonics so that I could prolong notes and their decay. Basically I had to study and rehearse a lot in order to feel technically fit enough to develop – comfortably - all the musical ideas Jürg and I were discussing during the recording period.

That’s interesting, because I know that you spent ages studying guitar at a conservatory in Santiago, yet there were still new techniques you had to develop to play what sounds like a very simple music. Could you tell us a bit about your training as a guitarist?

I started studying classical guitar in my home town, Osorno, with Mauricio Carrasco for a couple of years. In 2000 I entered the National Conservatory of the Universidad de Chile and I studied guitar there for almost 8 years. During that time I played and studied a lot of repertoire, from renaissance to contemporary, but I ended up playing mostly baroque and contemporary music. At the time I also did a couple of guitar contests, which I despise now, and played a few times as a soloist with several orchestras. My education as a musician was very, very traditional. From that period, I still play a lot of baroque music, especially Bach, and every now and then, contemporary guitar pieces. 

So coming from that more conventional training, what was it that drew you to try out experimental music? You say that you’d never played a Wandelweiser piece before playing Antoine Beuger’s ’24 petits préludes’, but how did you come across Antoine’s music, and what made you decide to give it a try? I don’t imagine that there’s a great deal of it about in Chile.

On 2013 I was looking for new pieces to play. At the time, I was investigating free improvisation in order to widen and explore my playing and, in doing so, I was constantly discussing things with Chilean composer Nicolás Carrasco (he was fundamental for this process). He had been in contact wth Antoine and others from the Wandelweiser collective for some time, and he and some other local musicians had been playing and actualising experimental scores for a while then, so he gave me a score to try: Antoine's préludes. I started working on them that very same day and later that week I scheduled a recording session with Alfonso Pérez (whom I've been working with since 2006). The scope and possibilities this kind of music could provide fascinated me. I had never encountered or heard music of this kind before and it changed the way I related to music and, more profoundly, the way I heard music.

You say that you were trying out free improvisation around the time that Nicolas Carrasco directed you towards Wandelweiser music. Is this something you still do, or does composed music suit you better somehow and if so why?

I sometimes improvise but not as an everyday routine. I had a couple of steady projects to explore the possibilities of improvisation but I stopped them all; it didn't make sense to keep on doing that. Now I do it only if needed, when it's the sole thing the circumstances allow you to do, or if I feel comfortable enough with a fellow musician. Anyway, you never know, this might change in the future. As to composed music, that's where I feel really comfortable now. I really enjoy working with composers, I feel that through the process of sharing ideas and concepts I can explore more and keep on challenging myself as a musician.

Could you describe your situation in Chile. I don't imagine that it is easy to earn money from experimental music. Do you earn your living as a musician, and if so, how?

Indeed it's not easy, not at all. Nevertheless, regardless of the difficulties, some musicians and myself are continuously trying to build networks and platforms such as festivals and concert series, to give some financial support to what we and others are doing. It’s not an easy task, as you may imagine. Fortunately, we can apply to get some funding from the government, and, in fact, that is how I can tour.

As for me, I make my living teaching guitar in a small conservatory in Santiago, and whenever I can, doing projects in rural areas of southern Chile, specifically near Osorno, my hometown. These projects are meant to enhance access to music in these particular areas of the country, and to do so I exclusively use experimental scores, such as Santiago Astaburuaga's for example. The idea and main goal is to use this kind of music to allow everyone to be involved in the music making. So far it has been quite fun.

At94x2    Jürg Frey ‘guitarist, alone’   played by Cristián Alvear

Double CD of music for solo guitar by Jürg Frey

Disc one:  ‘50 Sächelchen’   79:30           youtube extract

Disc two:  ‘relikt’                  9:38

              ‘sen 23’               30:16

              ‘guitarist, alone’   33:28          youtube extract

Jürg Frey


“Decades of heavily amplified popular music have ingrained the idea of the guitar as a loud, swaggering vehicle of individualism at its most potent – an image that extends from rock and blues to the unvarnished grit of flamenco and folk singers. The title of Another Timbre’s new album of Jürg Frey’s music, guitarist, alone, carries a similar connotation of outspoken defiance.

It’s easy to forget the reason why the guitar is so often amplified in the first place. Without supporting technology, the guitar is a frail-voiced instrument. The plucked notes decay quickly, the dynamic range struggles to reach past what other musicians would consider mezzo forte, sustain and resonance is limited to a few natural harmonics on the lowest strings. Frey’s writing for guitar takes precisely the opposite route almost every other composer would follow, eschewing continuous flows of notes, strummed chords and secure bass. On these two CDs, he demands the instrument be presented at its weakest, unaccompanied, its technical shortcomings mercilessly exposed.

Frey almost exclusively demands the guitar play single, unsupported notes, only occasionally allowing harmonies to appear. At first, it would seem that we have a situation similar to that of Michael Pisaro’s Mind is Moving IX for solo electric guitarist, discussed here recently: a series of isolated incidents, exquisitely timed. With a classical acoustic guitar, such an approach becomes almost impossible. The sounds are too faint and fleeting to significantly establish their presence.

Unlike some of Frey’s more recent, “figurative” music, guitarist, alone leaves us back in the position of being able only to suddenly listen. relikt, from 1987, works simply by juxtaposing one note against another, in succession. It’s a work of tremendous restraint, both in composition and interpretation, setting sound against silence in a carefully maintained equilibrium.

Cristián Alvear’s playing is a beautiful study in concentration throughout the collection. There are no extended techniques called for here, and so he produces each sound cleanly and clearly, with extraneous noise on the strings, neck or body of the instrument (that “authentic” grit of folk music) almost entirely eliminated even when the music is near silent. At the same time, the playing and recording never sounds so polished as to be sterile. Tiny, inevitable incidents in the sound and the background give the music a physical presence. For wen 23 Alvear stretches the piece out to half an hour, a mere dozen or so notes suspended on a sea of silence. (I’m not Joseph II so I’m not going to count them.)

The most recent work is the title piece, from 2014. It shares a title and a style close to that of his two works titled Pianist, Alone. The title now seems more plaintive than defiant. Contrasted with the piano, the thinness of the guitar’s sound suggests a less certain, more tenuous narrative behind the musical meandering. The guitar is a private, intimate instrument.

The 50 Sächelchen from 1989 take up the entirety of the other disc. These bagatelles, arranged in alphabetical order, imply a playfulness that might seem at odds with Frey’s typically hushed aesthetic. Funnily enough, this is exactly the case. These brief, sometimes very brief, pieces move from closely-studied miniatures to jaunty little stings (Jürg Frey ringtones?) and even snatches of music that are fast and even, as much as it is possible, loud. But only for a little while, now and then.”

Ben Harper, Boring Like a Drill

“Not one for the impatient listener, this softly entrancing double-disc set contains all the solo guitar music by the Swiss composer Jürg Frey – and that means an awful lot of silence and not a huge number of notes. The first piece, Abendlied, contains exactly 10 notes in two minutes, and that’s comparatively hectic. Frey is master of exquisite slow-fi; as a Wandelweiser artist, he considers quietness to be as expressive as noise, and the way a note decays as crucial as how it is struck. Apparently in preparing for this recording, guitarist Cristián Alvear worked to finesse the art of making no noise whatsoever as his hands moved over the instrument while playing – these things matter in music that’s stripped back to absolute essentials. His attention to detail pays off, and he really sinks into the hypnotic pacing. There’s a sense of thoughts being worked out in real time, of musical statements being made, pondered and responded to without an iota of hurry.”

Kate Molleson, The Guardian

“The complete Jürg Frey's solo guitar work has been recorded by Cristián Alvear. More than two hours of clean and long melodies, beautiful silences, poetic tunes and evanescent harmonics, realized with high precision and great delicacy. Or how silent can be just a beautiful musical material.”

Julien Heraud, Improv-Sphere

“Leaving aside Jürg Frey's impressive contributions as a clarinetist, this two-CD set joins an already impressive list of Another Timbre releases featuring Frey as composer; these include Circles and Landscapes (2015), six solo piano pieces played by Philip Thomas, Grizzana and other pieces 2009-2014 (2015), a double CD of Frey compositions played by his own Ensemble Grizzana, and Wandelweiser Und So Weite ( 2012), the six-disc set featuring composers in and around the Wandelweiser collective that included three Frey pieces.

Now, as its title hints, Guitarist, Alone features Chilean guitarist Cristián Alvear playing Frey compositions for guitar, unaccompanied. Since 2013, Alvear has built up a comparatively small but high quality discography, dominated by solo guitar performances, with his album of Michael Pisaro pieces, Melody, Silence (Potlatch, 2015), being a particular highlight. Pisaro, like Frey, is a Wandelweiser member, and Alvear's playing is well suited to the style of the group's compositions. He never sounds rushed and allows every note to resound and decay naturally, seeming to savour each one. In other words, he gives the music space to live and breathe.

Guitarist, Alone is jointly released on Another Timbre and Cathnor (as was the 2010 release Dying Sun by Looper) owing to the fact that it was Cathnor proprietor Richard Pinnell who—having reviewed Alvear's fine recording of Wandelweiser founder Antoine Beuger's 24 petits préludes pour la guitare—initially contacted Alvear to ask him if he would be interested in recording Frey's guitar music. Alvear accepted and set about the task. The process took eighteen months, including sending regular demos across the Atlantic to Frey and recording after he had commented. Along the way, Alvear had to develop a series of technical approaches that he had not previously used, such as how to move and lift his fingers over the fingerboard without making any noise. All of that effort was worthwhile as Alvear's playing is exemplary throughout and it is practically impossible to think how his versions of Frey's compositions could be bettered.

The album's two discs are very different. The first one consists of fifty alphabetically-titled pieces that vary greatly in length with nineteen of them being shorter than a minute, the shortest being just thirteen seconds long (altogether, six notes are played in it), and only four exceeding three minutes, the longest by some distance lasting seven minutes fifty seconds. Together the fifty pieces bear the title "50 Sächelchen" and play continuously. Frey's writing style gives the pieces similar tempos and dynamics, with the transition from one piece to the next never being too obvious or intrusive, the silences between tracks being comparable to the brief ones within pieces. Consequently, the fifty can be listened to as a unified whole with a consistently tranquil, soothing mood.

The second disc is in marked contrast to the first in that its seventy-three minutes only consist of three compositions, "Relikt" and "Wen 23"—both previously self-released in 2013 by Alvear (see the YouTube clip of "Relikt," below)—plus the title piece "Guitarist, Alone," especially written by Frey for this album. Lasting about nine minutes, half-an-hour and thirty-three minutes respectively, the three pieces create the same mood as the first disc, but are very different in character to one another. In particular, "Wen 23" is an extremely sparse piece even by Wandelweiser standards, punctuating occasional oases of music with many extended silences; listened to as a whole, it can be easy to forget that it is a continuous piece and not a collection of shorter ones as on the first disc. Despite being over three times the length of "Relikt," "Wen 23" seems to contain far less music. It is overshadowed by the extended title track that ends the album and is its undoubted highlight.

Taken as a whole, Guitarist, Alone is a positive addition to the discographies of Frey, Alvear and Another Timbre, and is highly recommended to admirers of any of those three.”

John Eyles, All About Jazz

“Is this a case of silence interrupted or notes ornately framed in a vacuum? As with

all those operating within the Wandelweiser’s sphere of influence, Swiss composer Jürg Frey revels in the spaces floating between his very occasionally deployed tones, the paucity of notes plucked from CristiánAlvear’s guitar requiring listeners to focus upon the finer details in the diminutive – the slow decay of a timbre’s tail and the sometimes chasm-like distance from here to there. Tension builds in the evolving hush, salvation arrives in the next tenderly breaking cluster, tiny bursts of light illuminating a pathway in the dark. It’s as if Derek Bailey were selecting passages

from the manifestos of Morton Feldman and Taku Sugimoto. Music like this provides an abstracted absolution from all that contaminating outside hubbub. So, sit back and take the time to immerse yourself in a superior suite of perfectly-poised near nothingness.”

Spencer Grady, Jazz-Wise

“Après ces quelques années à écouter toutes sortes de disques composés ou réalisés par les membres de Wandelweiser, j'en viens à considérer Jürg Frey comme le compositeur le plus important de ce collectif, avec Pisaro bien sûr. Pourquoi Frey plus que Malfatti, Beuger ou Houben ? Et bien peut-être seulement pour la présence récurrente de la mélodie, et pour la place de la beauté dans ses pièces. Parce que si ce compositeur travaille toujours avec le silence, ce n'est pas pour l'opposer au bruit, mais plutôt pour travailler les interactions entre les notes ou les mélodies avec le silence. Parce que Frey travaille régulièrement avec les notes prises de manière très pure, très cristalline et simple. Naturellement, il en est donc venu à composer pour la guitare. Et tout aussi naturellement, c'est à Cristian Alvear que les labels Another Timbre et Cathnor ont demandé d'enregistrer l'intégralité des compositions de Jürg Frey pour guitare solo, pour un double CD intitulé sobrement guitarist, alone. Naturellement, car ce guitariste chilien, remarqué en 2013 avec la sortie des Préludes pour guitare de Beuger, est en passe de devenir un des musiciens phares dans le domaine spécifique de la réalisation de pièces issues des éditions Wandelweiser.

Je ne pense pas avoir écouté autant de guitare acoustique en solo depuis que j'ai découvert Cristian Alvear. Ce dernier m'a fait redécouvrir cet instrument, sous une autre lumière. La guitare comme instrument de pureté, de poésie, comme l'annonce d'harmoniques fines et célestes, d'attaques pointilleuses et fines. Que ce soit pour les 50 minuscules études de 50 Sächelchen, la très silencieuse Wen 23 ou pour les magnifiques mélodies de guitarist, alone, Alvear utilise toujours la guitare comme une sorte de piano, mais en plus fin, en plus doux. Tout se joue dans la finesse des attaques, dans l'évanescence des harmoniques, dans la beauté d'une gestuelle hautement silencieuse. La guitare est un instrument bruyant, avant même l'amplification. Le mouvement de la main gauche qui glisse, le pincement des cordes sont autant de gestes qui entraînent des "parasites" sonores. Mais ici, il n'en est pas question. Le jeu d'Alvear a quelque chose de surnaturel, d'épuré au-delà de tout ce qu'on peut imaginer, il joue avec une précision angélique, avec un son d'une précision et d'une finesse rares. Et c'est excatement ce qui convient à ces compositions de Jürg Frey je pense. C'est sans doute la meilleure façon de réaliser ces pièces, de rendre hommage à ces compositions qui se penchent sur les phénomènes d'apparition des notes dans le silence, d'harmoniques qui s'échappent dans le silence, de mélodies qui flottent dans l'espace.  

Je n'arrive pas trop à m'intéresser aux pièces très courtes, aux formats des études et des miniatures, et je n'ai donc pas trop écouter le disque intitulé 50 Sächelchen, un disque varié qui regroupe des compositions parfois mélodiques, parfois très silencieuses, parfois fortes. La plus marquante des pièces de ce double disque est certainement guitarist, alone pour moi. Il s'agit d'une pièce où une longue et lente mélodie s'étire sur 30 minutes. On pourrait penser aux mélodies sans fin de Feldman, mais ici, j'ai l'impression qu'il s'agit d'une seule et unique mélodie étirée sur une très longue durée, et non pas d'une suite de cellules mélodiques. Une mélodie qui pourrait durer une éternité, qui ne semble avoir ni début ni fin. Une mélodie du silence ? Pas vraiment, il y a des pauses, le temps de laisser les harmoniques s'éteindrent et s'évanouir, mais pas tellement de longs silences. Pour avoir du silence, il faut plus s'intéresser à wen 23, une longue pièce de 30 minutes également, composée de très longs silences ponctués d'interventions monophoniques délicates et subtiles, fines et évanescentes, mais dotées d'une présence très intense.

Il y aurait beaucoup à dire sur la musique de Jürg Frey, et peut-être autant sur les réalisations de Cristian Alvear. Car il s'agit d'un ensemble de pièces beaucoup plus variées qu'on ne pourrait le croire. Beaucoup d'idées musicales traversent ces pièces, ainsi que leur réalisation. Mais dans le cadre d'une chronique, on va faire court. Et juste rester sur l'essentiel. Si la musique expérimentale est souvent considérée comme conceptuelle ou inaccessible, Jürg Frey offre une bonne alternative je pense. Car Jürg Frey, au-delà de son intérêt pour le silence, au-delà de ses recherches sur de nouvelles formes de compositions, continue de rechercher la beauté dans sa musique. Réalisées par Alvear, ces pièces, de par leur beauté, de par leur mélodie et leur sensibilité, ont quelque chose de très humain, auquel n'importe qui peut prendre part. Car Jürg Frey ne se contente pas d'explorer le silence comme matériau de composition, il explore le silence comme un matière que l'on peut rendre belle, et il y parvient toujours avec succès.”

Julien Heraud, Improv-Sphere

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