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Wandelweiser Sound

Wandelwesier und so weiter translates as ‘Wandelweiser and so on’.  The and so on is important, as this box set doesn’t aim to be a comprehensive anthology of Wandelweiser music, that function being already fulfilled by the catalogue of the Wandelweiser label itself.(1)  While offering new realisations of pieces by the most well-known composers in the Wandelweiser collective, Wandelweiser und so weiter focuses also and in particular on the edges of what is already a marginal music:  lesser known composers at or beyond the fringes of the collective, other musicians whose work has co-existed with or retrospectively prefigured something of what Wandelweiser is about, and – above all – the confluence of Wandelweiser music with the soundworld of textural improvisation through realisations by a number of musicians who are better known as improvisers, but who in recent years have been drawn to – and have in turn affected the development of - Wandelweiser music.

So Wandelweiser und so weiter presents a reading of Wandelweiser, one perspective on a music that is in flux, moving and changing in subtle ways, as if caught in the pull and ebb of a littoral sea.  

sound [noun]    -  a narrow passage of water between the mainland and an island,

             or between two larger bodies of water

I used to envisage contemporary music as a complex river system, flowing in a myriad of channels that divide and reunite, sometimes combining with tributaries, sometimes disappearing underground, or flowing into stagnant backwaters.  But with Wandelweiser I prefer the image of a sound: a body of water that can be more or less defined by what surrounds it, but which doesn’t move in a single, linear direction; which appears almost static, but is constantly shifting and reconfiguring itself.  I especially like the idea of Wandelweiser as a ‘passage of water…between two larger bodies of water’, something without precisely defined boundaries that takes from and gives back to the expanses around it in a process of ongoing exchange.                                                                               

Simon Reynell (producer) - September 2012

(1) the catalogue of the Wandelweiser label can be found here

For an excellent brief history of the collective, see Michael Pisaro’s essay here

Roundtable discussion

The following discussion took place by email over the summer of 2012.  The participants were the musicians Antoine Beuger, Dominic Lash, Michael Pisaro and Philip Thomas, and the producer Simon Reynell.

Simon Reynell:  In my opinion the coming together of Wandelweiser music with (for want of a better phrase) ‘post-reductionist’ improvisation is producing some of the most interesting music around.  Michael and Antoine, can you describe the ways in which the confluence of these two traditions has affected and changed your practice over the past five years or so?

Michael Pisaro: To be honest, I’m not sure if it has changed my practice as a composer. I feel that the openings in our music that allowed for this confluence you mention were more or less in place before the period of working with people from the improvised music sphere – other than Radu (Malfatti) – started to happen (even when, as has recently been the case, I’ve been asked by people such as Dominic, Rhodri Davies, Patrick Farmer, Sarah Hughes, and so on for pieces). fields have ears (4), written for Patrick and Sarah for example, makes use of a kind of indeterminacy that can be found in several of my older pieces (the way it is applied is different, but this has to do more with the concept of the “field” than anything else).

But what has definitely changed is the range of things that can happen in a performance of one of these scores (new or old). A performance of a harmony series piece today might draw on a whole set of sonic resources I hadn’t specifically considered when I wrote the piece. The range of sounds in fields have ears 3b (in the recorded performance by Dominic, Patrick, Sarah, Dan Jones and Angharad Davies) is pretty astounding, to my ears. Something like this is also audible in recent performances and recordings of work by Antoine. I love this development.

Most decisively for me, is that the world in which I see our work (i.e. Wandelweiser) has definitely changed, and this interaction between the different traditions is a big part of that. I like your image of the “sound” (especially as a way of describing the often hard-to-parse internal changes in the music). But I also like Antoine’s image of the “flock”; I’m thinking of those fantastic shapes created by moving swarms of birds that seem to operate as if “controlled” by one, but actually are the result of an emergent process. In any case, the shapes traced by this particular flock at the moment, with so many more people involved, are much wilder than anything I would have expected 15 years ago.

Antoine Beuger:  I agree with Michael that the confluence happened more or less naturally, or fluently: people involved in certain forms of improvised music and we somehow discovered affinities in our ways of approaching music and, especially, silence. Hard to trace it back, but I have the impression that Radu’s position in between these two musical worlds initiated this. Through Radu people like Taku Sugimoto and, I assume, also many younger improvisers from the UK, discovered us, and vice versa.

To me it was kind of a surprise to see this happen. I was very moved by the genuine interest that these people had in what we were doing, an interest based on really deep musical and human affinity. This hadn’t happened to us before and it somehow liberated us from our relative isolation at the periphery of the world of (new) music.

Personally I have always been convinced that music only comes into existence when it is played, and that, consequently, it is the musicians, the players, who make the music, not the composers. And to me the most important question, when working on a piece, is: how is it, how does it feel, to be part of this for a (the) player(s), what happens to them? If the piece doesn’t allow the players to have a deep musical experience while playing it, it doesn’t make any sense. On the other hand, a deep musical experience for the players will immediately convey itself to the listeners, so the music will become a “shared experience” (as in James Tenney’s definition of experimental music).

I think it is on this level that Wandelweiser and certain currents in improvised music meet. And it is easily the most inspiring meeting that has occurred to us.

Dominic Lash:  I can say a little about my experience coming from the other direction, as it were – that is, starting from the position of being an improviser. It is true that for me, as Antoine suggests, Radu was the initiating figure, and for a while he was the only musician involved with Wandelweiser that I knew anything about. But as time passed and I learned more, it was to a large extent the difference from improvisation and the connection with other traditions of new music that attracted me. I would guess that Rhodri's position may have been very different, but he was an important part of the improvising scene during the development of 'reductionist' approaches, while I only began playing seriously once that process – or at least its initial stages – were largely completed. I articulated something of my current feelings about this in the interview about Droplets that is on the Another Timbre website.

That being said, some of my more recent experiences with this music have contained revelations about the possibilities of putting an improvising sensibility to work in these contexts. I am thinking of two pieces I participated in at the Amplify 11: Stones and Gravity Wave festivals in New York last September. Rehearsing Michael's A cloud drifting over the plain with Michael, Greg Stuart and Barry Chabala was fascinating because during the rehearsal Michael removed many of the specific restrictions on us as performers. The music started to breathe more, and we were able to inhabit the world of the piece more fully than when we had had more detailed guidance. Also, while thinking about Antoine's s'approcher s'éloigner s'absenter, which was written for and performed by myself, Barry and Ben Owen (and is a score consisting only of indications to play sounds either similar to or different from sounds you have heard or played previously) I suddenly had the feeling that the piece was written very much with improvisers in mind. I don't know how true that is, Antoine, but while performing it I had the feeling that I was fully occupied with performing a composed piece of music while also drawing on all the resources I have as an improviser. There was almost no tension at all between these two aspects – something I had never felt in quite such a way before.

Philip Thomas:  What is so fascinating about this confluence is that it is so rare that performers from improvisation and composed backgrounds, and both, find common ground without egos and agendas getting in the way. The engagement between musicians/artists from all kinds of backgrounds feels entirely organic and natural and is something to really celebrate. I would say also that it has heightened the need for composers to devise structures and contexts for performance that are clearly differentiated from contexts for improvisation. Of course all performance is improvisation, but if there is a score of some kind, it needs to do something, or enable something to occur, which is distinct from the particular challenges of improvisation contexts. I enjoy so much your interview, Antoine, in James Saunders’ book, when you discuss the particular dynamics of duo performance, as distinct from solo, or trio performance. And it makes me wonder also about the differences in dynamic, for players and audience, between two performers engaged in a focused improvisation performance and two performers engaged in a score-based piece, such as Antoine’s un lieu pour être deux, or Michael’s Ample (from the Harmony Series). I’d be interested to know your thoughts…

Michael Pisaro:  I’m going to just to try to answer your complex question, Philip. I’d say that there might not be any obvious difference for the audience, especially if they don’t really know what the score looks like. But there is in my experience a difference for the performer (which does in the end have an impact on what one hears/what happens).

Even restrained scores such as the two you mention provide a structure – or what I would better describe as a set of limits. In some ways the scores are less limited than traditional ones (i.e. with staff notation). But we have to acknowledge that one decides to play a piece (as opposed to improvise) for a reason: that is, that one wants to adopt a point of view that is given by someone else/something else. For me there’s no escaping the “conceptual object” of a score, its reason for being. I feel that the best scores have a clear, one-of-a-kind conceptual object. And as a performer of a piece, that is exactly what I want to encounter.

The situation in improvisation is for me quite different. In a duo, you really never know what your partner will do. There’s a palpable sense that at each moment the direction can change, and that this change depends not on a set of limits given by a score, but on the contingencies of that situation: the place, the audience, and so on, but especially on the decisions of the two performers (which often remind me of a game of chess – or a Markov chain). In any case, there is no conceptual object other than the duo itself.

Radu and I once did two evenings back-to-back in Munich that were very revealing (for me at least). On the first night we performed duos each of us had written and on the second night we improvised. The scores were of course quite open, but I always had the sense of “playing something,” this sort of spirit of a score hovering over the music. On the second night we had had the experience of playing the scores of the previous night (and so kind of picked up where we left off), but I truly had the sense of “playing nothing.” This must be hard to achieve: I’ve played in several improvised duos and other combos, but always felt a slight drag on the situation, as if we wanted to achieve something. With Radu this sense disappeared completely, and then I realized: “This is the reason people improvise!”

Simon Reynell:  This leads to another question I was going to ask about valid and invalid realisations of scores. On the Wandelweiser und so weiter discs there are a number of realisations by musicians from an improvising background of very open text scores, and in particular in the case of some Sam Sfirri pieces, there are two or more very different realisations of the same score, sometimes sounding quite unlike performances of the pieces that Sam himself has been involved in.  So I’d be interested to hear your thoughts as composers, performers and improvisers on the question of whether some realisations of open scores can be deemed invalid, and whether interpreters need to do more than simply respond to the score itself and take account of the wider context of its production?  

Michael Pisaro:  I’ll step a bit around this question to say that, that for me any score ought to put into question the idea of authority. I much prefer performances of (traditional) classical music where I feel the performer him/herself puts something at stake (or something more at least than just following the instructions).

I think that “being faithful” to a score means that one finds the things in It that are genuinely relevant to one’s own concerns as a musician (even if, as can be the case, one discovers those concerns in the score one is performing). So for me our music is really no different in this sense than any other music with instructions/notes/changes, etc., in that the real question is “Why am I doing this?” If I feel that performers have undergone this kind of questioning, I’m happy – and I’ve often had the experience of learning to enjoy something that didn’t sound like what I expected, even more than the things that did sound like what I expected.

Dominic Lash:  Michael expresses what I feel about this very clearly – I don't think the issue here is different in any fundamental way from any music involving a text (in the widest sense). Brian Ferneyhough has written that “the criteria for aesthetically adequate performances lie in the extent to which the performer is technically and spiritually able to recognize and embody the demands of fidelity (NOT 'exactitude'!)”, and I would wholeheartedly go along with that.

On the other hand, Lionel Salter answered Derek Bailey's question as to whether a performance of baroque music could ever be remarkable because of a performer's contribution rather than for the composer's music with the reply that this “would be an absolute artistic crime” - which is very precisely what I do not believe.

Antoine Beuger:  I fully agree with Michael. The musicians and their concerns are central to any musical experience. They are playing music and not just “performing a score”, i.e. they are doing things they seriously intend to do (based on their inner motivation), not just things they are told to do.

Scores are there as a means of communication between a composer, who has a musical idea and a (group of) player(s) willing to be engaged in it. I like to refer to scores as “confidential letters” between friends, that is: as functioning within a situation.

“Having a musical idea” means: imagining a situation that it might be fulfilling for (a) musician(s) to be engaged in. This implies that, in my opinion, the players should be a composer’s first concern.

I would much rather invert the question of validity as pertaining not to performances but to the scores themselves: is this score a “valid” (thoughtful, promising, engaging, touching etc.) communication, faithful to the players. In other words: is this score really about music, about a “deep” musical experience, that is rewarding for players (and consequently: listeners) to engage in?

Philip Thomas:  Yes, I also agree with all the previous responses. I think the composers to whose music I find myself most attracted are those who are innately curious as to the outcome. This is true of Christian Wolff particularly, and I like that his music, which in many ways is on the surface very un-Wandelweiser-ish (! – there’s a term to take issue with!), is performed and recorded by Wandelweiser composers/performers and associates. The recording of his Exercise 15 on the Wandelweiser label is nothing like what one might imagine from the score but Wolff seems to be very happy, if surprised, by the recording. And so with the pieces on Wandelweiser und so weiter, I feel that the strongest are always those which act as a catalyst for surprise. I’ve felt this time and again when playing pieces by many of these composers, that something happens (very often many things happen) that I could not have predicted, that take me aback and make me feel so very alive in the act of performance. Of course, as Michael says, this is something that should happen in the performance of all music, but I think the attitude of renewed listening, of starting afresh with each new performing situation, makes one more alert and open to the vibrancy of each moment. This in turn leads to, or rather is expressive of, something like joy.

As for the notion of a performance which is ‘invalid’, I would like to argue that a performance which deliberately/consciously contravenes any instructions provided (no matter how minimal) is a misrepresentation of the piece. This is about the process and engagement with the score, and nothing to do with the sounds being produced. However, misunderstandings happen, we forget ‘rules’ and parameters, we may choose for a reason that seemed justified in the performance to ignore an instruction, etc. And so to return to Michael’s point, if the performers are engaging with the music (the ideas, not the notes) – i.e. there is, as Wolff would say, ‘goodwill’ – then an engaging performance is likely to result.

Simon Reynell: Another question I’ve been mulling is this: is there an ‘after Wandelweiser’? Almost all the composers who join the collective seem to stay, even if their music moves in rather different directions (the annoying stereotype that ‘it all sounds the same’ is even less true than usual in this case).  Will Wandelweiser continue to ripple out into wider and increasingly diverse waters?  Or does it have a particular focal point arising from engagement with a particular moment historically in the evolution of contemporary music?  And what might ‘after Wandelweiser’ look like?

Michael Pisaro: That’s a very interesting question.   At the risk of sounding pretentious, I’m going to answer it this way, using the terminology of Alain Badiou: Wandelweiser is not a style, it’s an event. That is, Antoine, and then in short order Jürg (Frey) and Kunsu (Shim) discovered a potential for truth about the contemporary musical situation in the period from 1990 to 1992 or so. (I think, by the way, that discovered is the right word, because something like this is not created – it’s only the music in the wake of the event that is created.) Perhaps it (i.e., the event) had to do with silence, but maybe that is just a shorthand for what they found. An event is evanescent, no one can pinpoint exactly where or what it is, we only have its traces. It is these traces that we (myself and the rest of the initial group) came into contact with not long thereafter, in the form of the scores, the recordings and of course the musicians themselves. That’s clearly still happening with other and younger musicians. But in a sense that puts all of us (Antoine, Jürg and Kunsu included) in an “after Wandelweiser” situation. I think this means that each of us, including by now several performers, improvisers, artists and so on, is in our own way trying to be true to this event, to unpack and explore the potentials of it and the implications of it. Since the event is multiple, and we are a very heterogeneous group (in terms of our language and musical background, amongst other things), we have developed (and continue to develop) quite diverse means of exploring these pathways, of testing whether there is still “truth” to be found in it. Sometimes our findings are in conflict: something I might have come believe about the situation, might appear to be untrue or of negligible importance to someone else (and vice versa). Or what one person is doing just might not sound or feel good (or right) to another. With the heterogeneity of people (and experiences) involved, I think that this is natural; but that doesn’t mean the differences can be easily resolved (or in some cases, resolved at all).  

Of course this is subjective. I cannot prove that an event occurred, let alone that it should be important for people who do not see anything there. I’m also not saying that this is the only possible candidate for an event of that time or the only way of seeing this particular event. I can only believe it happened and hope to act (i.e., make music) in a way that reflects that belief. I think that I will spend the rest of my life trying to follow the implications of what happened, which I imagine is the case for (most of) the rest.  

I remain deeply grateful to these gentlemen for exposing me to the Wandelweiser possibility, and to everyone else for expanding so immensely its potentials (and this applies every bit as much to the younger musicians coming along now as to my old friends). I also hope we remain good friends too. On that end, I hope to never see an “after Wandelweiser.”

Dominic Lash: Anthony Braxton likes to talk about the “post-Cage continuum”, the “post-Ayler continuum” and so forth. I like the way this both emphasises historically situated change (the “post-” bit) and continuity, inspiration, development (the “continuum” bit) – Braxton would refer to the the “post-Cage continuum” while Cage was very much still alive and working! Perhaps in that sense we are all operating in the “post-Wandelweiser continuum”?

Philip Thomas: I very much hope that the influence of Wandelweiser will yield surprising and diverse ways of approaching, playing and composing music. That in some ways it acts as a catalyst, as a point of reference, rather than a ‘model’ as such, or a kind of template. Just as Feldman’s music is not about ‘quiet-ness’ (I think that the quietness of most of Feldman’s music is a by-product of his concern for sound, space and time, and the quasi-physicality of those elements, and people who simply characterise is as being soft are missing the point)  so I think that the shared but also disparate concerns of the Wandelweiser-associated artists will be the shaping force upon much future music-making. The influence of Wandelweiser may for some simply be in an acknowledgement of its significance rather than any direct correlation with the resultant sound (just as acknowledging, rather than ridiculing, Cage's influence is sufficient distinction from the musical mainstream). Playing music by both of you, Michael and Antoine, along with Manfred, Jűrg, and others, has opened my eyes and ears – my experience – to the world, to a physical reality which brings into equal focus the sounds I produce as a player and the quality of the environments in which I live, work and play. I suspect this is true of many many other listeners and players and that impact changes everything.