Pianist, Alone: an inner journey into sound and isolation through piano

Jürg Frey, Pianist, Alone, Irritable Hedgehog Music, IHM012 2 x CD (2014)

Jürg Frey is a prominent member of a global collective of musicians known as the Wandelweiser Group, founded in 1992, whose main concern among others is exploring the relationship between sound and silence. On this double set, Frey’s pieces not only investigate the tension arising from the interplay of sound and no-sound but also the relationship between a pianist and the rest of the world that results from the pianist’s playing of the piano which plunges the musician into another world inaccessible to his/her audience and others. “Pianist, Alone” proposes that the pianist and the piano start to become one being when the pianist commences playing – the pianist subordinates his/her ego to the instrument and becomes the instrument by which the piano produces sound.

The result is three recordings in which the piano itself speaks with as pure-piano a voice as is possible, the player’s personality and other characteristics having completely disappeared. All that surrounds the piano is space. The music is highly focused with all concentration tamped into each note played – and everything is done very deliberately. There are no trilling melodies, no dramatic flourishes – the approach is severely minimal and austere. The majesty and range of the piano are conveyed in particular notes or chords, and each sound seems to be a micro-universe of impressions and experiences we may or may not be familiar with.

I can’t say that the three long tracks are easy to listen to: they can be insistent in their own way, forcing you to pay attention to them, but the level of concentration required to hear them out can be wearying, because the music almost exists in a vacuum. Some people may find this music helps them to meditate or develop their concentration. As we pass from CD1 to CD2, a smidgen of emotion, even desperation, may be detected in some of the melodies played. In the final track, definite piano chords are heard which as a phenomenon in itself might suggest the perfect fusion of pianist and piano as a complete instrument in itself. There is definitely something quite spiritual in this fusion, as though silence has turned out to be a necessary medium through which one comes to know oneself and one’s life purpose.

With such starkly minimalist music as this, the production level has to be very high and in this, producer R Andrew Lee is to be commended for giving us sounds that are very clear and quite sombre without sounding precious.