Simon Cummings, 5:4, November 19, 2015

Spending significant amounts of time with the music of Jürg Frey, as i have been doing lately, feels akin to reading a large chunk of the New Testament. There’s very much the sense that one is engaging with not merely the diverse whims of creativity, but multifarious facets of an intricate set of beliefs. It’s often said that composition has more decisions about what not to do than anything else (the same, of course, can be said of religion, with its emphasis on proscription) and in every moment of Frey’s music this is abundantly clear. It’s as clear as it is because in each piece Frey excludes a very great deal, establishing soundworlds within which only a few things can happen. Rhythm, pitch, timbre, articulation, dynamic, development, structure—essentially every aspect of compositional potential is strictly defined and confined, the resultant music playing out within those tight boundaries. In the case of String Quartet No. 3, imminently available on Wandelweiser’s own label, the music unfolds via regularly spaced chords, delivered calmly and flatly, at times dispersing into episodes of overlapping, drawn-out pitches. A triadic sensibility acts like an undercurrent, permeating and conditioning the variety of patterns and behaviours into which the piece settles. Around halfway through, a washed out chorale of sorts briefly emerges, followed immediately by a descending Lydian scale over an F major chord. Not everything has this clarity; the opposite is found in a rather entrancing section later on when all pitch content becomes strained and vague, a process that seems to leave a permanent stain even when normality is restored. The second work on the disc, Unhörbare zeit (‘inaudible time’), delimits the players—the quartet plus two percussionists—still further and is all the more engrossing for it; weak chords and even weaker solitary notes are held (‘dragged’ feels a more appropriate word, considering how they sound), the percussion colouring them with either low rumbles or something akin to a slowly rotating stone lathe. These form the restricted behaviour of the entire 35-minute piece, the only other aspect being periods where to a greater or lesser extent the music is swallowed up in silence. This latter aspect is important to Frey who, with direct reference to the title, refers in his programme note to “working with audible and inaudible durations that appear partly simultaneously and partly consecutively.” Unhörbare zeit is thereby created by juxtaposing these limited sounds and elements, as though they were the only ones that existed in the whole world. New sounds do creep in: granular and wind-like sounds can be heard towards the end, plus — most striking — what appears to be a set of tuning pipes, nicely mingled, but not blended, into some repeating chords (the pipes obtruding due both to their pitch within the triad, an added 6th, and their timbral difference), before the piece closes in a mesmerising kind of microtonally-challenged hocket.

… the music unfolds via regularly spaced chords, delivered calmly and flatly, at times dispersing into episodes of overlapping, drawn-out pitches.