An Interview with Jürg Frey

By · Illustrations Digital copies based on the works of Agnes Martin · Date 11/23/2017

In October, Erstwhile Records released a recording of the Swiss composer Jürg Frey’s six hour tape piece “l’àme est sans retenue I.” I took this opportunity to revisit and translate a conversation we had in August 2016 via Skype.

VAN: Your piece “A Memory of Perfection,” for solo violin, takes its title from an interview with the Canadian-American artist Agnes Martin. What appeals to you about her paintings?

Jürg Frey: I’m interested in the striking simplicity of her work. She made these surfaces of very refined color, light blue-yellow-reddish-gray tones. When you see them in a museum, they have this incredible radiance. The simplicity results in an incredible complexity of effect and statement. She didn’t use mechanical processes: she drew the borders for the colors by hand with pencil on the canvas and painted the colors by hand, too, which gives the works their expressive quality.

In your Wandelweiser biography, there’s a term that I found quite beautiful: “non-extravagance of sound.” What does that mean to you?

I have the feeling…I don’t use my sounds, first of all. I don’t use them to express something. The sounds aren’t my message; I don’t add my statement on top of the sounds. I try to find sounds that can simply be, like stones or any other kind of material. Though it isn’t material that I’ve collected, it’s sounds that I’ve composed myself.

Sometimes I think that I have to purify the sounds. The notes are often weighed down by meaning and their expressive qualities. I need to purify them so that they become normal notes. Just a long tone on a violin or whatever instrument. I’ve discovered that I’m personally happiest when there’s just a simple note, which affects the way I compose and influences how I work with sounds generally. You can’t use them in the traditional sense of composition, because then you get to a place where the notes are loaded with meaning again.

I’ve tried to find methods so that the sounds retain their intrinsic beauty, but I can still create a composition out of them. It’s a contradictory thing to do, but the interesting thing is that you can solve that contradiction through composition. The paradox stops being a paradox and becomes a beautiful piece of music.

Have you always worked that way, or was it something that developed over the years?

When I look back at my first pieces, which I wrote around 1978 or so—it was there. I just didn’t know it. I was working towards something, and I was happy, and then later I had a phase where I wasn’t even sure if what I was doing was even composition. I had to take a few detours to realize that really was my music.

But my very first pieces were basically simple sounds, organized one after the other. It was always there, which is interesting. I strayed from that path a few times, but I never lost it completely.

Many of your pieces have long, empty spaces. Do you want these moments to stay silent, or is it OK if noise fills the void?

That’s an interesting question. I have silence in a lot of my pieces, and the answer to the question isn’t the same for every piece. In my String Quartet No. 2, for example, I think it sounds best when it’s silent; when the audience is concentrated. They can be sitting or lying down on the floor or whatever, but there shouldn’t be additional distractions. No sandwiches to eat during the concert, and no walking in and out. It’s 30 minutes, and you should just try to concentrate. Of course your mind wanders—that happens to me too. It’s not like I listen to the piece and for 30 minutes I’m completely concentrated on every note. That’s totally normal.

That might be less true for other pieces of mine. If they’re longer, or if they have more silence, then it’s worth considering whether the performance situation should be different. But for the String Quartet No. 2, concentration matters.

Do you meditate?

No. But of course I’m interested in the way mind and body are connected and influence each other. I have a background in Alexander Technique, which combines mind and body work, and sometimes people ask me if that influences my music. But I think it’s the other way around: I’m interested in that kind of music, that lifestyle, so I studied Alexander Technique. And that’s why my music sounds the way it does now. But it’s not like I meditate every day or anything.

I think it’s more that in my work, all of that is a part of my daily life. I wouldn’t say meditation, but mindfulness—paying attention to detail, your body, thoughts, surroundings and environment. It’s very important for me to go through life with that attitude.

https://soundcloud.com/apartment-house/jurg-frey-second-string-quartet
Jürg Frey, String Quartet No. 2; Apartment House

Most composers have had moments where they’ve been surprised by their own music, especially at premieres. It can sound better than you expected, but it can also disappoint. Have you had this experience too?

It’s changed the more practice I get. I used to be disappointed often. Though “disappointed” sounds very negative, because I also learned to gain positive experience from those moments. If it doesn’t sound the way you wanted because the atmosphere isn’t there, or the musicians are playing the right notes, but you think, “It’s still not quite right,” at first you’re disappointed, but there are good sides to that.

It’s like getting feedback from the piece. I approach the piece like it’s my counterpart. And if my compositional work wasn’t clear, then the piece comes up to me in the performance and says, “Stop, stop, hey you: this isn’t anything. This won’t work the way you wanted. They’re playing it right, but you’re not getting what you wanted.” And I learned a lot from that. I’d go back to my room and think: What went wrong? Why didn’t I get what I wanted?

That’s changed recently, though. Sometimes I have performers who are so fantastic that the piece sounds better than I expected.

There’s a brief documentary film about you on YouTube, and one of the things you talk about is your handwriting and notebooks. How important is it to you to write by hand? Would you ever use the computer instead?

I use the notation software Finale sometimes. I recently put an old piece, from 1988, on the computer. But I had to use so many tricks to notate it, even though it wasn’t a complicated piece. In the handwritten version there are a lot of things that are kept in a kind of suspended state. The notation is somewhat unclear: “Is this a new measure?” There’s no barline; you feel a kind of emphasis, but not enough for a barline…I could put one in, and then the answer would be clear, but it would influence the interpretation. Everybody would put an emphasis there, but it would be too much! It’s supposed to be a small emphasis.

So, in order to keep my music in that suspended state, I’d have to translate it to a normal score and then hide things and make them more “harmless.” And that is such a perverse process. I don’t want to do that at all. It’s not like my music starts off being “right” and then gets veiled by the performer. That idea is abhorrent to me, which is why I can’t use notational software. But on paper, where you can write a little bit here and there, flip through the pages…

You have this suspended state on paper, unlike a score where you put your notes in. Often I’ll draw the five lines myself, and then I’ll have a blank page to turn, which is fantastic. You don’t have that fixation of: “Here’s a staff, so I have to write notes.” I don’t always know whether what I’ve written on the left side of the page will come before what I’ve written on the right.

This feeling is especially essential to me at the beginning of pieces, when I start to reach out for them blindly in the fog. I don’t want to give that up. On the computer, you have to decide. But on paper, you always have that “maybe.” ¶

Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.