Open to Interpretation

New composition here from Hannes Lingens on Edition Wandelweiser….Music For Strings (EWR 2101) is performed by Félicie Bazelaire and the Ensemble CoÔ, and we were sent a copy in February 2002 with a note indicating that the album actually came out in July 2021. The composer blames the “turbulent year” for this slight delay, and he alludes to “my regularly slow pace”, which is something I think we can all recognise. We’ve heard German percussionist Lingens on a couple of very extreme instances of improvisation music in previous years, but I did not appreciate he is also a composer. String player Félicie Bazelaire did come our way when she lent her double bass skills to a work by Stefan Thut, another Wandelweiser genius.

The relevant process here is one of collaboration, a dialogue; Lingens has been working with Bazelaire, and the Ensemble, for some time now, and quite often Lingens writes the music in direct response to a specific request or commission from the string player. Further, they are composed in such a way that they’re intended to be played by those particular musicians. I don’t suppose it means that Bazelaire and her team have an exclusive monopoly on performing the works, but Lingens has in mind certain nuances, methods, and materialities associated with her way of playing, and these are directly expressed in the body of the score. The sleeve note here probably describes it better than I can, but one thing is for sure – it’s intended to call the roles of “composer” and “performer” into question, or at least the traditional roles they are normally expected to play within the confines of Western classical music over the last 300 years. It’s an interesting idea; I seem to recall I’ve detected similar trends on other Wandelweiser projects in the past, although I can’t bring any of them to mind just now, unless one includes a recent instance of Bruno Duplant working with Frédéric Tentelier for instance. I mean Nocturnes (3 études). Given the fact that the same roster of names keep appearing on these international ultra-minimal compositions, and not just confined to the Wandelweiser set, it also suggests there are only about 25 people in the world who can actually do it. I might add that I don’t have a problem with this, especially when you think that most of the drumming on my favourite 1960s pop and rock records was by Hal Blaine or Bernard Purdie. (This is only a slight exaggeration).

On this disc, the 2018 recordings of ‘Triptych’ are real “grabbers”, and despite the slow-moving pace, the air of restraint, and the general mood of deep melancholy and uncertainty, I’m sure that most listeners will find a way in to these relatively accessible pieces of minimalist string music. There’s a real richness in the combined strings – violin, viola, double bass, cello – of the Ensemble, who are clearly performing their tasks with studied seriousness and gravity. I know I’ve made this observation before, but conventional forms of expression in string playing (vibrato, etc.) are almost completely absent, leaving us only with stark and isolated notes; well, the team are occasionally asked to do acrobatic glides up the neck and muffled plucks on the strings, but this is all evidently in service of the deeper plan that informs ‘Triptych’. Despite the title of the work, which might make you think of a painting telling a story across three panels, there is no narrative at play; just the hard-headed, materialist abstracted view of the world we come to expect from these tough-minded minimal bastards. To put it another way, if you want sublimation, call Western Union. An absorbing, mesmerising set results.

For track 4, we switch up the tempo and raise the stakes considerably with this 2021 recording of ‘Methods & Materials’. This is not a group work and it’s 100% solo Félicie Bazelaire with her double bass and/or cello. It’s here that we see the most clearly-expressed instance of that collaborative method alluded to above; it’s about the interaction of Bazelaire with Lingens, through the medium of the score. A fair amount of work has to be done by her, in terms of “creative perception” and how she will interpret the instructions. And “instructions” is just what the score is, not notes printed on a stave; as it happens, Hannes Lingens has included a print-out of the score along with his letter. One sheet of A4, in just three paragraphs of prose with a few bullet points; at first glance, it looks like one of the “team exercises” I get handed in the workplace when the management try to get us to improve our communication skills. It’s fascinating; the score starts with an injunction to analyse the very creative process itself, exhorting the musician to think about what they’re doing, and what it means. By paragraph three, we are at last getting down to some specifics, involving lists and sets of coloured cards, but even so it’s still incredibly open-ended. One almost feels like anything could happen, the work could go in any direction; yet it’s also tailor-made to the way that Bazelaire herself performs and plays her instruments. I think it’s important to bear all of this in mind, as you listen to the unpredictable and restless music we hear on this 21:19 minute piece; it could be that Félicie Bazelaire has been enabled to play exactly the sort of music that only she can play, but also that it has required a certain pre-determined process that she might not have managed to devise all by herself. If this is true, it shows how the open-ended non-prescriptive score of Hannes Lingens is making a real and appreciable difference. I’ll add that this work is far less “approachable” than the more user-friendly ‘Triptych’ above, and can appear more more disconnected and atonal on the surface, with many unexpected scrapes and bumps. But it’s also very rewarding, if you can start to crack the code (or at least be aware that there is a coded language informing the work at some level).

“In composition, I am not so much interested in fixing things,” says the composer in his letter, “rather in directing the focus towards certain questions or problems”. This process not only results in fascinating and (at times) beautiful music, but somehow it also provides a way for the listener / audience to become more engaged with the questions and problems he’s trying to address. From 4th February 2022.

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