Jürg Frey - l’âme est sans retenue I (ErstClass)


Read Yuko Zama's feature on l’âme est sans retenue at Surround

Copies of l’âme est sans retenue I are available at Erstwhile Records

Across the six hours that comprise l'âme est sans retenue I, Jürg Frey presents a carefully considered assemblage of field recordings and silence. The organizational structure of the piece is simple and austere: field recordings fade in, are left to simply exist, and then fade out into silence. Both of these elements span approximately ten to thirty seconds and this alternation occurs until a longer period of silence emerges. In the long tradition of Wandelweiser, Frey's arrangement makes an irrefutable case for the importance of silence in composition. And as with countless other works, this privileging of silence as compositional material allows for a consideration of our listening environment as a wellspring of its own musical details. 

The field recordings that appear on l'âme est sans retenue I were recorded during the final months of 1997 in a Berlin park. There’s little, if anything, that would help one identify the location or date of the source material though. This proves beneficial as it strikes down any reading of the recordings as highly personal and prevents one from viewing the composition as an aural travelogue or a snapshot of a specific place and time. To be certain, this is a composition that wants us to experience sound strictly as sound. This is obvious given that the sounds Frey recorded often have a muted quality to them, resembling white noise. The brevity of the field recordings’ appearances further crystallizes their status as unglamorized material. Consider, for example, how different the piece would sound with classical instruments. The inherent emotional quality in the timbre of strings or of pressure placed upon piano keys would dramatically alter our reception of the composition. There are no overtly emotional aspects to the recordings, and this is paramount to the piece’s success.

The decision to include a fading out of sound into silence is significant as it directs our ears from Frey’s field recordings to the silence he employs and then ultimately to our own surroundings. The result is a recognition of the expanded and reversed figure-ground relationship at play. Since the large majority of l’âme est sans retenue I is silence, we perceive this silence as the ground with which the sound acts upon. The presence of a “digital silence” is thus crucial as it pushes our understanding of the ground beyond what’s only present on the album to what’s also in our own listening environment. At the same time, one is hard-pressed to imagine how the alternative—an environment-sourced, Cageian non-silence—could have been utilized given the composition’s conceit.

The structure of l’âme est sans retenue I fosters a relationship between the listener and the piece that is in ways both predictable and not. The amount of time that both the field recordings and silence lasts is established within the first few minutes of the piece, making the pacing of this back-and-forth quickly familiar. Since l’âme est sans retenue I is spread across five discs, one is forced to remove oneself from the piece four times if rips of the CDs weren't previously made. It's a wise move, then, to have each disc start with sound; listeners can recalibrate with the composition’s sound-silence rhythm immediately upon pressing play.

The extended periods of silence, however, don't last for equal lengths of time. As such, the recognizable patterns that Frey sets up are constantly stripped away. This removal of consistency stirs a craving for the return of sound, and the fact that we as listeners are unable to foresee the precise moment it reappears makes for a lively listening experience. To be sure, one would be surprised by the reemergence of sound even if the stretches of silence were of equivalent lengths; unless one is keeping track of time, seven minutes of silence aren't particularly distinguishable from eight. Even so, it's safe to say that the varying lengths of silence subvert expectations—during the final hour, two minutes of silence are followed by one that lasts ten—and provide a much larger contrast to the other parts of the composition.

The most refreshing aspect of l’âme est sans retenue I is how its structure, overall length, and field recordings are conducive to a passive engagement with it. For dozens of listens, I treated the piece as one fit for an installation. Accordingly, I would occasionally have the tracks playing on repeat throughout all 24 hours of a day. Playing on speakers in my bedroom, the field recordings' presence would often be shocking upon my return to the room—how could I forget, again, that this was still playing? But even if I had stayed in a closed-off space where the piece was playing, I would frequently forget about the piece during its long silences. This naturally led to several bouts of laughter when the sounds surfaced. 

But more than just being surprised and finding it all very humorous, I came to understand the field recordings as an immense source of comfort. This is undoubtedly related to the desire one has to hear something familiar (both of sounds and their internal structures) during the silent sections. Frey is conditioning the listener to become accustomed to silence during these six hours, something that is pivotal in allowing the field recordings to be so evocative. The true marvel of l’âme est sans retenue I is how we aren't necessarily moved by the sounds present within the field recordings, but by sound itself. As previously mentioned, it's the "unglamorized" nature of the field recordings (along with the structure and length of the piece) that confirms this to be Frey's intention.

None of this is to say that an active engagement with l’âme est sans retenue I proves fruitless. There are numerous intriguing sounds that are contained within these field recordings. One of the most arresting segments appears at the end of disc one and the beginning of disc two—a soft but prominent gust of wind blows as chirping birds and a melodic sound akin to bells and synth pads is heard in the distance. It registers as something pensive and wistful, bringing to mind minimal ambient music such as Kazuya Nagaya's Utsuho. Near the end of disc three, the wind blows with a gale-like force. Nestled inside it, though, is a high frequency tone that provides a point of focus and consequent sense of peace in the midst of a raging storm.

Subtle, striking moments such as these are scattered throughout the six hours that make up l’âme est sans retenue I. It brings to mind l’âme est sans retenue III, which was released on Radu Malfatti's b-boim label in 2008. That album contained much longer periods of sound and silence, allowing for a more readily immersive listening experience. Each segment of sound felt distinct and had something (usually a high-pitched ringing) to maintain interest. In a sense, l’âme est sans retenue III is the midpoint between Frey's weites land, tiefe zeit, räume 1-8 and l’âme est sans retenue I. The sounds contained within part one and three of l’âme est sans retenue are sourced from the same recordings, yes, but the long stretches of sound in part three almost diminish the utility of silence to that of a mere cleansing of the aural palette. There's an understanding of silence's role in terms of the piece's structure, but the length of the field recordings overwhelms the listening environment, as is the case for weites land, tiefe zeit, räume 1-8.

When listening to l’âme est sans retenue I, it is impossible to ignore the meticulous structuring of material on display. As previously mentioned, the sound-silence rhythm is crucial, but it's also the sequencing of field recordings that is important. Frey makes this abundantly clear within the first few minutes of the piece. Of the first eight sections of sound, all but the third and fifth are from the same field recording session. There's a recognizable continuity that's broken by these two instances. But then Frey resumes the sound on the third segment with the ninth, and does the same for the fifth segment with the tenth. This intentional reordering discreetly enlivens the field recordings and the listening process.

This juxtaposition of different sounds occurs throughout the piece, but there are also other structurally interesting decisions that Frey makes as well. Halfway into disc two, church bells can be heard and Frey decides to separate two field recordings with only a second of silence. Even so, we hear a distinct difference in the bed of sound that accompanies those bells. Near the beginning of disc four, harsh winds prevail and Frey decreases the silences here to ten seconds in order to capitalize on the ferocity of the environment. Approximately seventeen minutes into disc five, a stretch of alternating sound and silence is amusingly capped off with the sound of a ship's horn. One may not recognize all that Frey does on this record, but one can be sure that Frey has done a lot to ensure that even the ostensibly plain moments will be captivating. Granted, even the fading in and fading out of the field recordings makes the tracing of sound within each segment an enjoyable endeavor.

The l’âme est sans retenue series takes its name from a book by French writer and poet Edmond Jabès. Jabès's interest in the "unwritten word" manifests in his works in various ways, one of which being pages laden with "empty" white space. His influence on Frey is clear. One is tempted to draw additional comparisons to l’âme est sans retenue—the poetry of Mallarmé, the paintings of Fontana, numerous flicker films—but none are quite satisfactory. Visual mediums necessitate an active engagement via sight, and this results in a fundamentally different experience than what one has with this specific piece by Frey.

The strongest analogue that comes to mind is of wearing Molecule 01 by Escentric Molecules. Molecule 01 is a fragrance almost completely made up of the aroma chemical Iso E Super. Iso E Super is present in countless perfumes today and is used to enhance and soften notes, akin to how salt is used in cooking to draw out numerous flavors. Iso E Super has its own distinct smell—a peppery cedar with a tinge of antiseptic alcohol—but the most common result is that those smelling the chemical detect nothing at all. When perceptible, Molecule 01 is subtle and abstract (theoretically, it should amplify your skin's natural scent). One may catch a whiff of the fragrance but it will be intermittent and at varying degrees of strength. The simultaneously passive and active experience of wearing perfume and the quasi-blank nature of Molecule 01's scent provides for an experience that's extremely comparable to that of l’âme est sans retenue I. That I'm unable to think of anything else that provides a similar experience is a testament to how Frey is doing something incredibly unique here, even within the Wandelweiser camp.

Frey composed the l’âme est sans retenue series from 1999-2000. As such, the first part of the series marks Erstwhile Records' first archival release. It doesn't sound the least bit dated, though, and one could easily argue that it sounds refreshing compared to all the melodic compositions that have defined Frey's recent releases. To think that this may have never seen the light of day is shocking; this is the very best piece of music that Frey has ever composed, and is an undeniably essential addition to the Wandelweiser collective's catalogue.

Takahiro Kawaguchi/Utah Kawasaki - Amorphous Spores (Erstwhile)


1. 12:32
2. 10:59
3. 4:17
4. 10:01
5. 5:20

Purchase Amorphous Spores here
Read Kawaguchi's production notes on the album here

Before listening to Takahiro Kawaguchi and Utah Kawasaki's Amorphous Spores, one first experiences Hirozumi Takeda's beautiful design for the album. The photographs that adorn the packaging are alluring precisely for how they draw out specific qualities from various objects—the shape of the mushrooms, the contrast in color between them and the dirt, the general form and movement of the leaves—and bring them to the forefront via thoughtful framing. These individual photographs are chosen with the gatefold packaging in mind; the leaves that flank the side interior panels act to house the CD between them. When one lifts the disc from its tray, an upside down mushroom is revealed. It's unexpected and equal parts charming and hilarious. It all captures the essence of Amorphous Spores perfectly and acts to prepare one for engaging with the music.

When "12:32" begins, a low rumbling is heard. It's deep and has an inherent rhythmic quality to it that sets up the piece as both meditative and dramatic. However, any sense of tranquility is quickly shattered with the sound of a loud, resonating horn. These horns appear frequently but in different ways; sometimes we hear small squeaks, sometimes we hear a series of short notes. A buzzing drill arrives soon thereafter and it acts to contrast the clear, crisp tone of the horns. These three sounds make up the large majority of "12:32"—it may not seem like much but Kawaguchi and Kawasaki handle the material with such meticulous precision, in both pacing and arrangement, that the piece feels grandiose and nuanced.

Even more exciting is "10:59", a whirlwind of a tune that ranks among the best pieces either artist has ever created. It's huge and cacophonous and accomplishes such a feeling through the mixing of various contorted electronics. Considering this photo of Kawasaki sporting a SOPHIE shirt, it's easy to connect the elastic and humorous sounds present on "10:59" to those SOPHIE has created in the past couple years. However, it also recalls the playful attitude of U is for Utah and some of the stuff Kawasaki has created under the youpy moniker, both in its sound and sense of humor. The horn is present again on this track but it serves a different purpose in the midst of hyperactivity. There are, in fact, isolated moments where the horns resemble that of a clown's but what's more amusing is how a constant stream of staccato notes—something present on "12:32"—can sound so terrifically deadpan. The unexpected appearances of the whirring drill are also effective and they've managed to make me burst into laughter on multiple occasions.

The following two tracks are a bit more familiar-sounding but they manage to highlight how Kawaguchi and Kawasaki are so great at contextualizing specific sounds. On "4:17", the drill is heard yet again but it blends more seamlessly with the fidgeting noise. Here, the clamor is contained and the different components amass into a thick layer of sound. When the drill finally disappears, it becomes clear just how instrumental it was in making the piece feel so dense. "10:01" performs a similar trick except with the horn, allowing its droning tone to bind the rest of the instrumentation. As its high-pitched tone eventually clears, the abrasiveness of each scrape and yelp becomes palpable.

The album ends with a reprisal-of-sorts of album opener "12:32" and it acts as a repose from the raw buzzing noise of the previous tracks. It differs from the first track, however, due to how overwhelming the looming low end is; in the final thirty seconds of the song, we hear a note that's perceptibly altered by the track's deep pulses. That exact moment ends the album on a subtle but strong note. Amorphous Spores is filled with many of these small details and it's exactly why it feels like such an accomplishment; the level of craftsmanship that appears in every track allows each revisit to feel incredibly satisfying. It's a real testament to how astute both musicians are in utilizing and organizing their source material, and it's at the core of what makes Amorphous Spores one of the best albums of 2015.



Kevin Drumm/Jason Lescalleet - Busman's Holiday (Erstwhile)


1. The Hunt
2. Powerless
3. The Wait
4. The Push
5. Belligerence
6. Honest Toil

Purchase Busman's Holiday here
Read a review of Drumm/Lescalleet's live show here

Busman's Holiday opens with audio taken from an iconic scene in John Boorman's Point Blank. Walker, played by Lee Marvin, has just been betrayed and left for dead by his accomplice Reese and his wife Lynne. Having survived the incident, he makes his way to Los Angeles with the intention of getting revenge. As the scene plays out, Walker's footsteps reverberate loudly, juxtaposing the calmness of Lynne's morning routine. Interestingly, these footsteps continue and become non-diegetic sound for images of Walker himself. It's effective as a means to build tension but also as a way to establish the unwavering one-track mind that defines Walker throughout the film. As a result, there seems no better way to start off Busman's Holiday. This record definitely sounds like the collaborative work of Kevin Drumm and Jason Lescalleet but it's even more uniform in style and mood than The Abyss. It's a bit surprising considering the variety of sounds that both Drumm and Lescalleet have explored within the past year, let alone their entire careers, but these six tracks are far more potent for it. The result is a cohesive and ultimately better album, and Busman's Holiday ends up being an incredibly strong statement for both of these highly accomplished artists.

When the footsteps and film soundtrack that introduce the album cease, "The Hunt" explodes into electrifying noise. The reason this piece feels so powerful is the perceptible movement of these sounds in the mix. In albums like PurgeSheer Hellish Miasma, and The Pilgrim, passages of harsh noise feel domineering because of their huge monolithic presence. Numerous components may contribute to an overall structure but the main effect is less a frenetic assault on the senses (as with the second track on Land of Lurches) and more an all-encompassing wall of sound that completely envelops the listener. From its moment of impact, "The Hunt" does very much the same thing. The general shape of its screeches and howls keeps the listener trapped inside but what makes the track particularly oppressive is its refusal to stay motionless. These buzzing drones move around the listener at a moderately slow pace, circling them like prey, and it adds greatly to the piece's ominous ambiance.

There are approximately ten seconds of silence before "The Hunt" ends and "Powerless" begins. Those ten seconds act as a chance to catch one's breath, and when the piece starts with a loud tone, one may assume that it'll rupture into something as equally raucous as the last track. But what starts shrill soon crumbles through fuzzy noise and into a static drone. The album's liner notes state that the record is "a meditation on the inner mental environments that one encounters and endures during times of work-related travel." I've consequently listened to this album numerous times while driving to work and "Powerless" has felt particularly effective in accomplishing that feeling. Through my car stereo, the smears of high-pitched tones overhead are the primary sounds that catch my ear. Aside from adding textural interest, they act to stimulate and direct my attention towards the stillness of the drone and the repetitive mechanical rhythms heard underneath. In turn, this makes me aware of the blankness of my thoughts during these periods of travel. It's something that presumably occurs as a way to distract myself from the banality of such an everyday event as well as the equally familiar workday that's to follow. Before long. the song gradually builds into something comfortably noisy and it slowly ushers me back into that empty state of mind.

"The Wait" bears a similar structure to "Powerless"—it first descends into a dark pit before clawing its way back out. It's the longest track on Busman's Holiday but its length feels justified as it allows the listener to feel the physicality of its rattling machines. Here, the clatter is at the forefront while the subtly shifting drones are in the service of accentuating its deep reverberations. This relationship is key as it magnifies how eerie these noises actually are. It's comparable to "Asking for the Initial Thing" from the eighth edition of This Is What I Do but more dynamic, nuanced, and dramatic. As a result, when the piece ends with a more prominent drone, it feels like a natural extension of the mood evoked by what came beforehand. 

This eventually leads into "The Push", a track whose title presumably refers to the perceived stasis of the cacophony here. The piece consists of three large blocks of noise, the first of which is the longest and highest-pitched. This section also evolves the most elegantly; it's difficult to pinpoint the exact development of these noises unless one hears the beginning and end of this passage right after one another. The following sections are just as noisy but their individual components are "livelier" and less homogeneous. The sequencing here is important and it, along with other factors—the general sounds used in each part of the song, the decision to have complete silence before the final passage, the relative lengths of these three sections—all contribute to the effectiveness of the piece as a whole.

"Belligerence" comes next and it's most interesting for its spontaneity. While not exactly high-energy, there's a fierce unpredictability to how this piece progresses and it grants the song some intensity. Near the beginning of the track, a high frequency tone appears unopposed and it pierces the ear. Considering the sound palette of the previous tracks and the general density of their structures, it feels particularly refreshing at this point in the album. This tone pops up frequently throughout the song, juxtaposing roaring electronics at one point and low rumbles at others. At around the six minute mark, a buzzing noise starts to pan back and forth across both channels before abruptly halting. A burst of cloudy noise emerges, as if snapping all the previous sounds into place. The surrounding fog dissipates and the track soon ends.

Busman's Holiday concludes with what's perhaps its most surprising track. Both Drumm and Lescalleet have made incredibly "pretty" pieces before, both individually (Imperial DistortionShut InArchaic Architecture) and together ("The Abyss"), but it's accomplished here in a way that's far more affecting. "Honest Toil" consists of a high-pitched tone, a shifting drone, and the sounds of various objects and machinery. It's all incredibly delicate and all these specific sounds—light tapping, miniature squeaks, the flipping of switches—are carefully organized as to sustain the track's child-like essence. These small sounds brings to mind moments in Keith Rowe and Graham Lambkin's Making A, though with a much sweeter tone (alternatively, a less saccharine Four Forms). One such example is an incredibly delightful moment at 2:54, when a tiny beep and ticking sound play harmoniously. Even when the rattling gets a bit noisy, the sustained sound of the other instruments help to maintain the piece's calming mood. A looping melody eventually appears and closes out the album on a nostalgic note. It may be too romantic for some but it feels appropriate both as a musical contrast to the previous tracks and as a final statement regarding the album's theme. Work is tiring and overwhelming but in the warmth of this final track comes encouragement from Drumm and Lescalleet to persevere.