Jurg Frey / Radu Malfatti: II – quiet recordings that embody unexpected paradoxes

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Jurg Frey / Radu Malfatti, II, Erstwhile Records, 2 x CD erstwhile 072-2 (2014)

Both Jurg Frey and Radu Malfatti enjoy reputations as composers and performers of quiet soundspace music so listeners should not be surprised that when these two gentlemen from Switzerland and Austria meet to work on an album together, the result is two discs of quiet music. As with many other recordings Yours Truly reviews here (you all know what I have in mind here), the sound volume really has to be turned up to The Max or Eleven on a scale of 0 to 10 to fully appreciate this work. Malfatti presents one disc of pure tone and subterranean musing and rumble and Frey answers back with field recordings, everyday background ambience and various instruments including clarinet and piano. Since all the music is improvised and was recorded over a 2-day period, I assume Frey had a group of people (uncredited in the album’s sleeve notes) helping out.

Malfatti’s disc “shoguu” is broken down into five tracks for ease of listening but can still be a forbidding listening experience for most people. In this most minimalist of minimalist music, the extended cautious tone drones, limited in their range and expression, are separated by spaces that seem completely empty of mood, ambience and meaning. One’s ears still abhor a vacuum and even the most seemingly context-less pieces, on the surface nothing more than a musical binary code of tone and not-tone, end up with meaning assigned to them by the listener’s own imagination. Safe to say then that no two people will hear “shoguu” in the same way. The same person’s perception of “shoguu” will also change each time the disc is spun, depending on the person’s mood and the circumstances accompanying each occasion the disc is played. At this point, it would be fair to say that many people, faced with music such as this, lacking a narrative and context that more or less suggest to them what to think, what to feel and how to respond, will end up bored and restless.

Frey’s disc, labelled “instruments, field recordings and counterpoints”, is a slightly busier but no less quiet audio experience. Thanks to the continuous background ambience of outside traffic and people shifting instruments and furniture about – perhaps that’s why Frey’s “helpers” are uncredited since he would have had to go outside and get the names of all the pedestrians and vehicle drivers who happened to pass by during the recording of his piece as well as all the tradespeople walking in and out of the building – the whole disc presents a continuous tapestry of sound textures all kept together and unified by various tones played by Frey and his instrumentalists. Or is it that the field recordings unify the sounds Frey & Co generate? One’s attention is entertained by these polar opposites along with the silence-versus-noise paradox – which is noisier, more disturbing: the actual noise itself or the silence? – while Frey’s side runs its course.

This is one of those recordings which, to be fully understood, require some knowledge of the musicians themselves: Frey and Malfatti are members of the Wandelweiser collective of musicians which formed in 1992 to investigate and explore the potentials of quietness and silence as an essential element of music. Though they have been members for 20 years, I am not sure they have actually played or collaborated together very much. This disc expresses not only their interest in silence as an important creative element in their music but also their parallel “non-collaborating collaboration” contributions to it. The label Erstwhile Records becomes a significant actor in bringing the two musicians together and probably should have been credited in an active musical capacity beyond merely performing its usual support and distribution label function.

I guess while I’m at it, this is also one of those recordings that might have been better served as a DVD release so that listeners have something to watch and can appreciate the processes that Frey and Malfatti use to demonstrate their ideas and beliefs about the roles of quiet and noise in their music. As a pure listening experience, this set really is very demanding for those of us with short attention spans. I know I usually have to get up and do something while playing these discs; the downside is that I end up devoting less attention to the music because it is so quiet and monotonous.

Contact: Erstwhile Records