SA9: The Monophony issue
Play one note.
Play another note.
Play another note.
This is an exercise I did for years, building melodies one note at a time with or without regard to harmony or rhythm; letting the shape and flow of the melody define itself based only on the consideration of this question: "Does it work?"
It's an exercise that still causes a certain amount of existential angst. "Does it work?" turns into "what does work mean to me?" turns into "how do our definitions of success compare and contrast?" Each new question becomes the analog to a note in the exercise. I follow the spiral until I find myself curled up in front of the television in need of a nap.
Play a note.
I've found myself using monophonic work as a possible entry level into studying new composers. The desire to tackle the one-note-then-another paradigm has become an automatic point of interest for me as I peruse the record store/library/internet aisles. It has become my roast chicken, well-tied bow tie, or perfectly located fastball. It is my musical equivalent of watching a great artist do something simple in a transcendent way.
So, when I decided it was time to do a Sound American issue that would feature a number of writers, beside myself, talking about the music they know and love in terms wholly their own, I naturally gravitated toward what I thought was a musical staple capable of great elegance: monophony. This issue started that simply; what monophonic pieces encapsulate an artist's aesthetic and skill. And, who can speak most eloquently about them?
What lies within is an attempt to answer that question with features by great musicians and writers about great composers and performers: Mark Menzies on Gérard Grisey, Mary Jane Leach on Julius Eastman, Josh Sinton on Steve Lacy, Richard Pinnell on Antoine Beuger, and an interview between Carol Robinson and Tom Johnson.
Play another note.
Regardless of the skill and insight these writers brought to their subject matter, these essays felt like the beginning for this issue of Sound American. There is a specific kind of joy that comes from discovering music. It's a quality that I've tried to portray in every issue of Sound American in one way or another. In these pages, it had been replaced by the joy of understanding music; something that's deep and meaningful in its own right, but needs that spark of spontaneity and unknowing to set it in relief and make it that much stronger. To that end, each essay is paired with the thoughts of a separate musician or artist on hearing the monophonic piece for the first time. It became an interesting exercise to read the interview after the essay; parsing out what is important to different ears and what qualities come to the fore immediately or need immersion to become evident.
And, this line of thought opens up other, broader, ideas about what we need or what we think we need in music. Is harmony necessary? What creates motion to our ears? Do we need motion? Is a single voice more powerful than a choir? Obviously, this line of questioning becomes subjective at best, but as I followed one thread after another, one question kept coming back to me: "How do we use limitation?"
Ultimately, the exercise of one-note-then-another is meant to be about limiting yourself to a rational succession of pitches. The endgame of the exercise is a sense of control when given the freedom to do what you want while improvising. But, doesn't the freedom we're striving for in performance have a need for some sort of limitation to ground or define it? As I listened to the pieces for this issue, I found that sense of limitation or ground in different places: obviously in Tom Johnson's Rational Melodies, but also in the cellular structure of Grisey's Prologue and the maniacal sound shaping of Steve Lacy's New Duck. It reminded me of a passage in a Slavoj Žižek essay on F.W.J. Schelling's work on the beginning of temporal thinking;
...our intellectual creativity can be 'set free' only within the confines of some imposed notional framework in which, precisely, we are able to 'move freely' - the lack of this imposed framework is necessarily experienced as an unbearable burden, since it compels us to focus constantly on how to respond to every particular empirical situation in which we find ourselves.1
Play another note.
So, what does that mean for the monophonic composer? Does the lack of harmonic framework present the possibility of moving "freely" for the composer or does it created an "unbearable burden" to be overcome. If the latter, how does the composer climb that particular mountain successfully?
And so, to address that question, Sound American includes an exercise in limitation; in this case, historical context. Issue 9 features four great tenor players of the moment working through the harmonic, rhythmic and historic limitations of Body and Soul, a song heavily defined by Coleman Hawkins's seminal 1939 recording. These saxophonists each dealt with the limitations of a very well known harmony and melody, as well as Hawkins's towering presence in very different and, ultimately, very musically satisfying ways.
So, in the end (and after including our return of 5 Questions, this time with Kurt Gottschalk), the issue came about like the one note exercise. It started with monophony, which opened the mind to certain composers and their monophonic works, which further opened into the broader ideas of experience and limitation.
And, this leaves us here. Perhaps in an existential crisis. The narrative string of one note after another has been convoluted by choice as you click from page to page. The availability of information can be paralyzing, ending with you in front of the TV, but I admonish you to stay strong! Start where you want, think of that as your first note, then follow it to what makes sense next, even if it's not on this site, then wait, then move, then wait. When you're done, come back and pick another note.
 Žižek, Slavoj. The Indivisible Remainder: On Schelling and Related Matters. London: Verso, 1996
listen to antoine beuger
Antoine Beuger: keine fernen mehr 5
Antoine Beuger: keine fernen mehr 9
Antoine Beuger: keine fernen mehr 13
Richard Pinnell on Antoine Beuger's keine fernen mehr
Throughout my life, small and often inexplicable moments seem to have a considerable impact on me above what might be reasonably expected of them. For most of my life I have taken trains between The South Oxfordshire town of Didcot and London. The reasons for these frequent journeys to and from the UK's capital city have evolved down the years. For now they are most commonly to attend musical concerts but they began as a small child. My father was for many years a railwayman, initially a guard on trains back and forth along the route in question. I have early memories of being taken along when he went to work, presumably to lighten the load on my mother for a day, but these trips had a significant impact upon me. As well as possibly helping me to appreciate the repetition of the mundane as we went to and 'fro along the same piece of line all day, one detail stood out to me. Someone had written a piece of graffiti, in beautifully brushed capital letters on an otherwise grimy wall near the entrance to London Paddington station. This was the late seventies, and beyond the occasional roughly scrawled eulogy to one football team or another, graffiti had not yet really taken hold alongside the tracks. What really made this graffito stand out however was its gently poetic, unexplained wording;
"FAR AWAY IS CLOSE AT HAND IN IMAGES OF ELSEWHERE"
I struggle to be able to explain why these ten words had such an impact on me, aged around nine or ten years old, but they did. It seemed that amongst the grey disinterest of the rest of the journey, against the glimpse my father was offering me of the mundanity of a working man's life, this inscription offered a small spark of creativity; of dissent perhaps, but of a thoughtful, gentle kind. It made no sense to me that these words should be written there, and somehow they disconcerted me; made me wonder what was going on in the world I was not being told about. In his 1984 book Notes from Overground, a charmingly wry look at the day to day drudgery of the railway commuter, the poet Roger Green, writing under the pen name Tiresias comments on this same piece of graffiti:
“It has made some of us commuters uneasy. With [other less poetic graffiti that Green admonishes in the book] we knew where we were. With FAR WAY IS CLOSE AT HAND IN IMAGES OF ELSEWHERE we feel suspicious. What does it mean anyway? Is it a line of original poetry? Is it a seminal quotation from some master or guru? Does it have any connection with drugs? Does it simply mean that when you look at a travel poster it reminds you of last year's holidays? Is it code? Every time we pass it, a whiff of disturbing culture penetrates the train's philistine carapace"
For weeks after I would copy these same ten words neatly in the back of school exercise books, enchanted by not only their inexplicable meaning but also by their presence in such a seemingly unlikely place. They felt like an act of quiet rebellion to me, although I wouldn't have realised that at the time. The wall carrying the words was demolished in 1981, though I had long forgotten about the inscription by then. Perhaps six or seven years later though, when once again making the journey into London I saw the words again, written just as beautifully neatly on a different but nearby wall. The intense memory of those early experiences not only sprang into my head, but they left me feeling physically sick there and then, perhaps because seeing those words afresh brought back the sensations of uncertainty, of self-questioning. Over many subsequent trips into London however that piece of writing on that wall, which survived for a further half a decade, quite amazingly considering the proliferation of graffiti that exploded all around but not over it, offered some kind of quiet solace to me, a constant and heartening presence that while meaningless in itself left an indelible mark.
Spring forward another two decades and I made another train journey to Glasgow, where I was lucky enough to spend twenty-one hours over three days in a room at the Instal Festival that contained Radu Malfatti, Manfred Werder and Antoine Beuger, three members of the Wandelweiser collective. The musicians, each of whom is also a composer performed works they had written in various formations, sometimes on their own, sometimes simultaneously with other pieces, sometimes alongside recordings of other works they had made at other times. The atmosphere in that room was unlike any I had witnessed before. Situated, ironically enough, underneath a railway station, the trio blended their extremely quiet, contemplative music with the rumble of trains, and fought against the noise music permeating the space from elsewhere at the festival to create an environment of quiet calm. Audience members came and went, but I remained present throughout, occasionally finding myself the only non-musician in the room. On one of these instances, I found myself sat on an old sofa in the centre of the space with only Antoine Beuger in the room beside myself. Radu Malfatti had left a barely audible CD playing, and Beuger, a flautist, had put down his instrument and had begun a series of soft, dry whistles using only his mouth which he pitched against similarly low tones from Malfatti's recording. Antoine's whistling was quiet, softly hushed but not entirely noteless. While a tune certainly could not be found, there was something faintly melodic about it, almost like a gentle lullaby. Throughout the three days, despite the sense of calm in the room I had found myself in what felt like a heightened sense of awareness. Details like the formations formed as paint had peeled from the walls seemed to take on additional, if irrational meaning, and while the outside world seemed a million miles away within that space I felt alert to everything. As Antoine began to whistle however that watchful vigilance very quickly ebbed away and I fell into a deep sleep, as if the whistled lullaby had been intended for me.
That experience in Glasgow impacted upon me in a similar way to that which the early graffiti exposure had done. Although I had been closely following Antoine Beuger's Wandelweiser CD label for six or seven years by the time of that festival in 2008 I had never met him before, and the whistling came as a big surprise, as he had only begun doing this in performance a year earlier and there were no recorded examples of it. Maybe it was the feeling of intimacy in that room, maybe it was my already altered state of calm awareness, but when Antoine whistled it had an immediate profound impact that, like the graffiti experience I find hard to explain. Writing this now, and reflecting on what is still a strong memory six years later, it perhaps doesn’t seem unreasonable that Antoine had chosen to whistle at that point. After all the sound he made was not your everyday trill but a breathy, colourless exhalation that was clearly a musical decision, but for whatever reason it affected me in a way no sound in a concert setting has done since. It felt starkly human, unusually direct, devoid of the trappings of composed music, no matter how minimal they had been all weekend. For months after I talked energetically about the experience to anyone I thought wanted to listen and, as by then I had taken to writing about music, I found myself referring back to the immediacy of that moment often.
Two years later, and a new two disc CD release arrived in the post from Antoine. Keine fernen mehr is performed by Beuger alone; whistling. He wrote the score in two parts, each taking up a disc, and each then divided into seventeen sections of short but differing lengths. I had no idea that this release had been in preparation, or that Antoine had written a score for his soft, dry whistling but when I put the first disc into the player there again was that sound, just as it had sounded a couple of years earlier. Now not only did all of those memories come flooding back, but here were two discs of beautiful music that in themselves had a certain enchantment about them. As a music writer many pieces of music fall through my letterbox but few impact in the same way keine fernen mehr repeatedly succeeds in doing.
While my self invented connections to the album are clearly somewhat irrational there is no doubting that keine fernen mehr stands out as quite a different, deeply personal piece of music in Antoine Beuger's catalogue. He describes it as one of his most personal pieces: a work he created when asked by a close friend to write a piece in the memory of her mother, Anna Humburg, someone Antoine also knew and had passed away a year earlier. Rather than search for something that might connect biographically in some way, Antoine turned to the whistling because of an immediate need to create something at once both intimate and elusive. Relating to his own experiences of losing someone close, when he felt that they were simultaneously closer to him than ever; absorbed inside him, and yet also farther away than ever before. The piece was written in attempt to portray these seemingly contradictory feelings. To my ears keine fernen mehr achieves this remarkably well. While on one hand the whistling, made up of quiet dry lines separated by silences feels distant, belonging elsewhere. Perhaps like those words written on the railway line wall, it also feels incredibly intimate; personal, as if the whistling is intended directly for me, the listener, as it had also felt that afternoon in Glasgow. Listening feels like a gap has been bridged. Far away, and yet close at hand. Indeed the title of the piece, the subtlety of which just doesn't render easily from German to English and so clumsily translates as no more distances reflects similar thinking. Antoine talks of how we all experience so many forms of distance, of alterity, of ineffable difference through our relationships to those closest to us, and how these seem to dissolve with their passing. His intention is for something similar to occur between the sounds on keine fernen mehr and the person listening to it. For me it does. Listening to the album, even four years after it's release, is an intense and yet calming experience. I feel close to this music in a way I don't with any other. Perhaps this may be as a result of my experience in Glasgow, but I think it would feel a special album without it. Brian Olewnick in his review of the album declared that it contained "a level of profundity and serious emotion that is painfully absent elsewhere" and, despite the most minimal of ingredients involved in its construction, it is this sense of emotional depth…of a weight betrayed by the lightness and simplicity of the monophonic whistling…that brings keine fernen mehr so close.
The intimacy of the music offers us a direct connection between Antoine and the listener that we rarely hear between any composer and his audience. Not only has he removed the flute he usually plays, so taking away a degree of separation, but he has with this piece also removed the additional musician realising his work. Antoine has said in the past that he considers a score to be a personal letter to a musician. One of the most generous, caring people I know, he has long adapted his work to bring the best out of others. A fair amount of his work is written with a particular musician or ensemble in mind, and what we hear as listeners is Antoine's work filtered through the perspective of those realising it. Keine fernen mehr was written by Antoine for himself, with the CD recording in mind. In doing so, not only has he produced a work that portrays a single, immediate message but a message not muddied by the addition of other voices. Antoine is open to others performing the work, but nobody has ever asked to, and I am pleased, as I'm not sure I would want to hear any other realisation.
One of the recurring themes in Antoine Beuger’s work is what he describes as a sense of “twoness”: an abstract consideration inspired by his deep interest in the poetry of Emily Dickinson and the work she sent as personal letters in particular. In an interview in 2004 with James Saunders he talks of his interest in the relationship between two people, two musicians perhaps, or two people sharing a space. Keine fernen mehr feels like a personal letter Antoine has written, an intimate exchange that reflects the life of his friend’s departed mother and captures the spirit of his care and compassion in its simple form: grey whistled lines that neatly straddle the boundary between beauty and deep sadness. Indeed the two beautiful haikus chosen by Antoine for the sleeve of the CD release not only fit with the simplicity of the music but describe the deep blue colour of the larkspur, the favourite flower of Anna Humburg. Not only is the sense of simple poetic beauty present, but the intimacy and the feeling of a personal letter to friend who has lost someone close is clear.
If in much of Beuger’s work the parties that make up the “twoness” could be musicians, or perhaps they are Antoine and the musician whom he has written the private letter to in the shape of a score, it feels with keine fernen mehr that the connection is directly between composer and listener; whether that listener be Beuger’s bereaved friend or the listener sat at home beside their CD player. The music across the two discs is monophonic, a series of single grey lines, mostly similar in length…a few seconds at a time…separated by silences. The pitch of the whistles may rise or fall very slightly from note to note, but the differences are slight, like the changes in stripes across an Agnes Martin painting stretching from one side to the other with slight human discrepancies but on the surface an apparent uniformity. It is in this analogy, this comparison to minimalistic painting that perhaps most will find the beauty in keine fernen mehr.
Such a structure was familiar to much of the output of the Wandelweiser collective at the time of the work’s composition and recording, though rarely was only one musical voice heard, and even more rarely was the sounding voice a human one. The simple structure of early plainchant is also present here, albeit it an inference rather than anything direct. There is however this undeniable feeling of intimacy to the music that for me personally adds something deeply moving to the mere simplicity of the monophonic structure. This isn’t just minimal music. It is music that has meant a great deal to its composer and draws on the most profound aspects of the human condition. For me personally, this music has deep meaning that extends back to the way that wall near Paddington Station left me feeling as a child. If those early train journeys and the misty memories of their impact on me might be far away, the aural images that Antoine Beuger’s whistling paint for me bring them close to hand again. Nobody else can feel the same intimacy that I do for keine fernen mehr simply because the admittedly irrational links I draw from it to my childhood are personal to me. The wonder of this music is that it finds a way to tap into such subconscious feelings and set them free again.
aaron moore listens to antoine beuger
Drummer Aaron Moore is a difficult person for me to explain. Partially because we don't know each other well beyond random conversations at concerts and a delightful but short duo session, but also because I think there is a part of his personality that enjoys being unexplainable. It's one of the things that draws me to him as an artist and as a person. It's one of the reasons that I thought of him for a first listening of Antoine Beuger's keine fernen mehr, as well.
I stopped by Aaron's place and set up the recorder. I made him aware that the piece was about 45 minutes long, but assured him that we could just listen to 5 or 10 minutes and then talk about what we heard. As soon as I started the recording, Aaron and I started talking about it. The recording continued. We continued. The recording finished. We continued. I was left with almost an hour of talking, the transcription of which seemed daunting. As I listened back, however, I became fascinated with how our view of the piece changed, as well as the very audible discomfort that starts to overcome Aaron only to blossom into a respect for the piece. I wanted to capture that, so I edited moments out of our conversation with keine fernen mehr in the background to give a feel for the passage of time and the effect the composition was having on us both. Instead of crossfading into a super mix, I left representative silences to give a feeling of the air in the room at the time. The result is very different from the other first listenings in this issue, but somehow I felt it was a good match with Beuger's intimate and idiosyncratic work.
moore on beuger