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Wandelweiser: Disappearance in Celebration
 
by
 
Marc Medwin
 
"Our poetry now is the realization that we possess nothing. Anything therefore is a delight (since we do not possess it) and thus need not fear its loss …”—John Cage, Lecture on Nothing, 1950
 
Imagine what happens between a sound and its absence, the many shades and multiple possibilities accompanying each gesture as the sound is born, transformed and departs. There is something of this process uniting the music emerging from the collective and label known as Wandelweiser.
 
Wandelweiser—The word is as enigmatic as the music on this Düsseldorf-based label is transcendent — has existed for nearly twenty years. Of the word itself, long-time member and composer Michael Pisaro writes:
 
“Edition Wandelweiser was the name Burkhard Schlothauer gave to the fledgling 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.”
 
For me, the word has become magical, evoking universes in long-breathed phrases adorned with crystalline silence. The chain of syllables evokes all manner of sounds existing in and for themselves, gracing the music with their presences before evaporating. Yet, each release is a self-contained vision, a unique manifestation of the deepest mysteries listening imparts to those willing to engage.
 
Much of what I perceive as a label aesthetic comes from my conversations with Dutch composer Antoine Beuger. His latest offering, Keine Ferne Mehr, is a double disc comprised of no other timbre save his whistling and room ambience, fashioned into compositions of stunning clarity and intense beauty. Experienced in a quiet environment, at low volume, each pitched exhalation blooms and then fragments, surrounding itself with tiny airy bells, a phenomenon resultant from a very close recording but which yields many subtle rewards on repeated listening. The compositions evoke ghostly shades of scale and tune flecked with more immediate but nameless timbres of human survival, such as the myriad ways in which we breathe. Beuger's voice shares the introspective qualities of his music; he answers each question in low tenor range, each word resonating but never puncturing the silence unless there is an absolute need.
 
“You know …” he begins. There is a pregnant pause. He ponders, draws breath, seems ready to resume, pauses again. “I went to my first symphonic concert with my father, and I must have been around eleven or twelve. They were playing Beethoven’s Pastorale. I knew the piece by heart from recordings, and the anticipation of actually hearing the music in concert was almost unbearable. I remember the incredible moment of silence just before the piece started, and then the first notes. I was absolutely thrilled to be hearing it live, but I was also feeling a profound sense of melancholy. I realized, without being able to put it into words, that, essentially, music appears to disappear again.”
 
Many have come to a similar realization, and, just as one example, composer/performers such as Eric Dolphy even articulate the phenomenon. However, very few subsequent compositional aesthetics are shaped by the experience in such a fundamental fashion as happened to Beuger. The realization ultimately led him to perceive that music’s transient nature must not only be embraced, but it must be celebrated.
 
Beuger was aided in this epiphanic development by his discovery of post 1950 John Cage, where silence and non-intentionality come to the fore. Beuger’s new discoveries were met with indifference, even hostility, by his composition teachers, but the impediment only strengthened his resolve. In 1993, he and friend Burkhard Schlothauer formed the publishing company that would become Wandelweiser, the label emerging two years later. Beuger remembers that there was no conscious decision to form the label around any kind of aesthetic. “We found each other by accident, and that is the real magic and mystery of it all,” he muses. “Even if the few of us beginning the project had what we thought was a clear aesthetic vision, we felt that we were alone.” He laughs, “I think each one of us thought we were alone in the world, until that moment, when we came across somebody else and thought, my God, someone else is considering all these things to! The first six or seven years entailed a series of discoveries of that sort, “Hey, there’s another one!”.”
 
Synchronicity was at the heart of the collective’s formation. One of the more geographically disparate examples involved veteran trombonist Radu Malfatti, who had grown frustrated with what he saw as the limitations of “free jazz” improvisation, giving a concert of his gorgeously acetic music in Athens, Greece. After the performance, a shy young man approached Malfatti: “Mr. Malfatti, I was wondering if tomorrow morning, I could give you a CD of my works, which you might find interesting …” The composer was Anastassis Philippakopoulos, and the two of them spent five hours of the succeeding day in intense coffee-shop conversation. Similarly, California Institute of the Arts composer Michael Pisaro, at that time based in Chicago, was introduced to the burgeoning Wandelweiser community by former member Kunsu Shim, and it might be said that his initiation came in the form of long and equally engaging phone conversations with Beuger. For a fascinating and thorough history of the collective’s development and early aesthetics, Pisaro has written an essay which can be found here:
http://erstwords.blogspot.com/2009/09/wandelweiser.html
 
At the heart of the new collective stood the music of John Cage. “We didn’t see Cage as a philosopher,” Beuger is quick to assert “We saw him as a composer.” While superficially obvious, it is Cage’s philosophy that has determined the discourse around his work, while its musical ramifications have gone largely unexplored. For the Wandelweiser composers, Cage’s works proved to be a treasure trove of live wires with loose ends, ready to be radically retied. It was an evening of Cage music, when Beuger was fifteen, that cemented his plans to pursue the life of a composer. “In one sense, it was chaos,” he reminisces. “Cage was onstage in my small Holland hometown, in front of maybe ten people, and he was telling stories while people worked with contact microphones. It was intense, and yet, it was also somehow understated, and in being so, much more effective and affecting than any sophisticated and complicated theatrics could ever be.” Beuger saw and heard the trajectory of his life in Cage’s subtle but poignant recreation of life itself, in all of its disconnected, direct and profound totality.
 
It was natural, given such a deep experience, that Cage’s music should be inextricably linked with Wandelweiser’s advent and development. In fact, the label’s first CD release, a double disc performed by accordionist Edwin Alexander Buchholz, contains an excellent rendering of Cage’s “Cheap Imitation,” along with pieces by Beuger, Pisaro and the Swiss composer Jurg Frey. It is the radical nature of the performances that set Wandelweiser’s Cage interpretations apart, imbuing the music with fresh vigor by plumbing the depths of the soundworlds, or landscapes, that Cage was continually imagining. Other Cage offerings from Wandelweiser include a stunning realization of “Branches,” apiece for amplified plant material performed by Ensemble Daswirdas, recorded in a huge and acoustically complex Swiss dam. Brief sounds shock the system with their immediacy, while an unimaginably long and natural reverb imbues others as they fade toward silence. As often happens with Cage, the piece is an extension of, or series of variations on, a slightly earlier work, “Child of Tree.” Daswirdas would also record a version of Cage’s “Cartridge Music” for the label.
 
The Cage influence comes to a fitting kind of fruition in this, his centenary year, with the release of the monumental “Empty Words,” composed in 1974. “This is a very special piece in Cage’s works,” observes Beuger, a reverent tone entering his voice. “After 4:33, which I see as a cut into the existing musical continuum, Cage’s compositions are more like cross-sections, or states of being, without the structural turning points of his earlier works or of earlier music in general. “Empty Words” is different in that, over its ten hours, there is significant change, represented by omission, or even departure.”
 
Very briefly, “Empty Words” is constructed, using chance operations, from Henry David Thoreau’s journals. The first part uses only phrases, words, syllables and letters, with no complete sentences; the second part omits the phrases, the third sees words disappear, and the fourth has only letters and sounds. “It is an irreversible process, and this is something you don’t find in any other Cage pieces,” explains Beuger. “Another thing that disappears is the notion of extremes. In the first two parts, the speaker is instructed to use all manner of inflection in the delivery. In the succeeding sections, a much more centered approach is required as the text grows sparser and the silences longer.”
 
Sylvia Alexandra Schimag’s inspired reading of the varied, phrases, words and syllables is supported by music from Wandelweiser composers, treated by Beuger to reflect the textual changes. The first two parts were taken from Daswirdas’ “Branches,” fragmented to eliminate the longer and more continuous passages of pod-shaking, reflecting the disappearance of sentences in the second part, to cite one example. The change to a more nocturnal feel in the third part—Cage preferred that the piece be performed overnight—is bolstered by an as-yet unreleased piece by Beuger entitled “oborozuki,” which means “Drowned Moon” in Japanese. The fourth part is accompanied by Label cofounder Burkhard Schlothauer’s “Ab Tasten,” a luminous piano meditation originally released in 2001. In this way, Wandelweiser’s recorded history becomes integral to Beuger’s conception of “empty Words” and its trajectory. While not recorded in conjunction with the music, Shimag’s voice blends beautifully with the various acoustic environments, every consonant and vowel clear and large while remaining intimate. The ten-hour journey through rapid motion, its decay and, ultimately, through the regenerative revelations afforded by silence and centering is one of the most remarkable I’ve ever experienced on disc.
 
While it might be said that Cage set the table around which the Wandelweiser group gathers, there is no dogma in the way the composers approach his legacy. “It’s what I really like about the group,” says Radu Malfatti. “There’s none of the proprietary competition you get from establishment composers—no, you can’t use that, it’s mine!” Malfatti is, in a fundamental way, Beuger’s polar opposite where personality is concerned. The words flow out of him in undulating torrents, his voice rising and falling with the myriad emotions behind every phrase. “A leftover from my free-jazz days,” he smiles, remembering his stints with seminal British and South-African improvisation units such as Brotherhood of Breath and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble with a fond distance. If his turn to composition in the 1990s brought a reduction of notes to his music that matches Beuger’s, it did not diminish his energy or render him a follower. His sole offering on Edition Wandelweiser is rife with silence, but it also teems with vigor, explosive non-pitched shocks abounding at every turn amidst reflectively pregnant pauses that seem to lead rather than follow. His work is simply symptomatic of the group’s diversity, even evident before Wandelweiser existed as an entity. Listen to Jurg Frey’s piano pieces from the late 1970s, as recorded by John McAlpine, and there is the simple but deep desire to hear each sound bloom and fade, woven into a soft blanket of tonality. His later piano works, stripped of earlier tonal implications, engage space and the way it is filled, a radical coming-to-terms with sound’s fundamentals. Whether in interpretive ensembles, such as the one that recorded a beautifully subtle versions of Christian Wolff’s “Stones” in 1996, or in their own compositions, Wandelweiser is about moving forward and savoring each moment of the journey as it vanishes and then becomes, documenting a solution while posing the next question.
 
As “Empty Words” was being prepared for release at the end of 2011, a fire ravaged Edition Wandelweiser’s Düsseldorf office, destroying half of the label’s CD inventory, driving the concept of disappearance home with staggering finality. As might be expected, for Beuger, the aftermath has been a time of reflection. “Of course we lost things,” he ruminates, “but I am realizing that Wandelweiser is not contained in this office, or even in this geographic area. It is a regenerative spirit of discovery that a fire cannot destroy.”


  Marc Medwin


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



 


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