Among the Primes and Partials

From Switzerland we have the cellist Stefan Thut, Wandelweiser collective member, who we heard on Un/even And One which was recorded in Russia and released on Intonema in 2016, an unusual affair made from cello sounds, sine waves, and something to do with rubbing cardboard boxes. There was also Two Strings And Boxes from 2012, made with fellow Wandelweiser player Johnny Chang, a record so quiet and empty it defeated the critical responses of Paul Khimasia Morgan.

He’s here today with Among (INEXHAUSTIBLE EDITIONS ie-031), which he composed in 2018, and performed it in 2020 with the help of Félicie Bazelaire (double bass), Léo Dupleix (sine waves) and Fredrik Rasten (acoustic guitar). This label often signal when we’re in the “serious and minimal” arena with a cover that’s shorn of all content, save a white background and stark black printing in lower-case letters. As you may know I have personally struggled with appreciating much of the combined Wandelweiser efforts over many years, though certain efforts by Bruno Duplant have provided me with a glimmer of hope, likewise the recent brushes between Michael Pisaro and the Insub players. At least Among is relatively accessible, there is a good deal of content, and though it may be deathly slow and solemn it’s not completely inaudible, nor is it playing games with “silence” that tend to disrupt our normal listening pleasure. No denying also the ingenuity and innovation of Stefan Thut’s work here. If I understand it, the structure of Among is very far from a conventional score of notes and harmonies, and is based on the principles of numbered partials to be found in a vibrating sine wave. The string players are required to tune to a sine wave, and “proceed in ratios” based on a succession of mathematical formulae (multiple, prime numbers). There’s also something to do with the very physical nature of the instruments, acting as resonating bodies for sound waves in the performance space.

I’m barely able to grasp much of this, but it’s clear that our man Thut has a very clear and precise grasp of numbers and how they can relate to intervals and harmonics in music, or be used to help understand them. I am dimly aware that Helmholtz (in the 19th century) was a pioneer in describing acoustic resonance and could express it in terms of maths formulae, and his work was cited by minimalist Charlemagne Palestine (for one). For the composer personally, one success of Among is demonstrated by the “thoughtfulness and dignity of the ensemble” who played it; it’s something about “noticing” each other, a process which to him is more important than players simply tuning their instruments together. Well!! When we think of the years musicians have wasted on things like co-operation, interaction, playing in harmony, staying in tune, keeping in time – all things requiring tremendous effort and craft and communicative skills – when all along they could have settled for just “noticing” each other. Still, I should not sneer nor carp. Stefan Thut believes he may have found “an actual model for a co-existence”, a model which, in today’s world of unceasing strife and conflict when any sort of co-existence looks increasingly impossible, can only be perceived as a good thing. From 28th April 2021.

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