Erstwhile, Wandelweiser and so on
Updated: Jul 14, 2018
When I stopped sleeping, I stopped listening to music. It should have been a balm to me during those long lonely nights of wakefulness. A soothing counterpoint of euphony to the rest of my life that was in complete disarray. I hoped it could, if not drown out, at least soften the misery of giving up on sleep.
But somehow, in the throes of massive sleep debt, music—songs, symphonies, what have you—irritated me. Everything I heard sounded contrived, with a preening emphasis on melody and virtuosity. Verse, chorus, verse—I get it. I became impatient whenever I listened, anticipating the next structural element in a piece, unable to stay in the moment, which is an apt description of anxiety. I was tapping my toe for the wrong reason. Instead of a refuge, music was making me nervous.
So I stopped listening. From up in my office at the top of the house I could see all the other houses in the neighborhood, windows dark. I was the only one awake. Our eldest dog, Boone, often slept on the floor beside the couch while I read works of colleagues. Or tried to. The words would pass right through me. I’d only hold onto to them for so long, then they’d slip away. I read Carolyn Cooke’s marvelous collection Amor and Psyche three times, unable to largely recall it. I quit after three. It wasn’t the writing; it was me.
Sometimes I just puttered about the internet to pass the time. One night, reading an entertainment column, I stumbled across some music that intrigued. It was from an English guitarist named Keith Rowe with whom I was vaguely familiar, an abstractionist from the far end of the jazz idiom, if I wasn’t mistaken. He and another guitarist, whom I’d not heard of, Michael Pisaro, had made an album entitled 13 and I liked that number, enough to buy the CD. It wasn’t available for download at the time. Instead it took a bit of effort just to obtain the music. I had to email a label called Erstwhile in Jersey City, New Jersey. Then it took more effort to get my arms around 13 when I first listened to it. Much of it is silence. Notes are more rightfully described as quiet events occurring in sparse clusters, an organization of sound somewhere in the far corner in the big tent of music.
The album, its wispy threads of guitar and static, is always different, too, because the silence that jackets the sound is ever-changing. Not really silence at all: the sound of a car out on the road, the croak of tree frogs in the yard, Boone groaning in his sleep, the ambient world forever informing the composition.
The more I listened to it, the more it fascinated me. It was undeniably odd, but familiar in some way. Random, unobtrusive, evocative: it was the sound of one person alone awake in the house at night. The thrum of the water recirculator shutting off at two AM, the fridge shifting gears, the whisper of air traveling through a duct. The music had that kind of irrational—but perfectly logical—organization to it. It was never the same way twice. It always surprised me. Sometimes it sounded like the air conditioner—and sometimes it was the air conditioner.
Nonetheless, I found something that my increasingly fractured mind could listen to. The music, I would learn, was of a genre that labored under the unfortunate category title of electroacoustic improvisation, an outlier beyond the intersection of free jazz and Cagean classical music. Sometimes it sounds more like nature than music, violins swarming like bees or ancestral bagpipes. A forlorn solo contra bass sawing away in a pergola in the middle of a downpour. Wandelweiser Records, the imprint of the European Wandelweiser Group also is an extensive source of this music, only available in CD, too. Jürg Frey is a prominent composer within this collective (as is Michael Pisaro).
Frey would be a good place to start for anyone interested in going to the trouble of listening. For the uninitiated, his Grizzana and other pieces 2009-2014 (Another Timbre) is worth hearing. The instruments are familiar, clarinet, violin, flute, viola, piano, cello, organ, the pieces austere and romantic, redolant of Frey’s Switzerland. It unwinds slowly, achingly. The second disc is painful in its unsparing beauty.
The slightly more adventurist might try another album of Frey’s, a duet with the Austrian trombonist Radu Malfatti on Erstwhile (072-02). The sound is incredibly spare, a tone of clarinet like fog settling over water. Malfatti’s trombone is like the distant baying of a moose in a thicket, the tone airy, disappearing into air itself. The two carry on a very slow conversation punctated by silence. It’s like they’re waiting and thinking and boiling down what they want to play to its most basic utterance. Once you relax, the music envelopes you. Or it least it did me, during those days of sleepless insanity. I still listen to it, even after I finally found a doctor who figured out what was wrong with me and my body. At this very moment in my office, Radu Malfatti and Jürg Frey low back and forth as if over a pocket alpine lake, while a rooster announces itself outside somewhere in my neighborhood, and somewhere else outside here the banging of a hammer rings out, the remodel up the street. The music mingles with all the other sounds, more random than a soundtrack, becoming part of the fabric.
This quiet and baffling music is one of the valuable artifacts that stuck with me from that wretched time a year ago. Since returning to sleep and regular life, I find it simple yet complicated, abstract, vaporous, impossible in the end to pin down other than it doesn’t sound contrived, which is what irritated me about normal music in the first place. (I still find that irritating even though I mostly sleep fine.)
If you want to find out more, here are some good places to start:
Erstwhile has since made it easier to obtain its catalog with downloads on Bandcamp; although if you email, the head honcho, Jon Abbey, a real cool guy, emails you back. Elsewhere is also a distributor for Wandelweiser and Another Timbre, among many much more esoteric labels: http://www.erstwhilerecords.com/catalog/072.html.
A great writer named Brian Olewnick has a blog Just Outside (http://olewnick.blogspot.com/).
Thousands of very perceptive reviews of this music. Always accessible and eloquent. Olewnick also just published a wonderful biography: Keith Rowe: The Room Extended.
For Wandelweiser records: https://www.wandelweiser.de/_e-w-records/_ewr-catalogue/index.html.
For Grizzana and Other Pieces: http://www.anothertimbre.com/freygrizzana.html.