Magnus Granberg, Jürg Frey – Early to Late

The second recording by Ensemble Grizzana features two new works by Magnus Granberg – How Vain Are All Our Frail Delights – and Jürg Frey – Late Silence.

Featuring Jürg Frey (clarinet), Magnus Granberg (celesta, harmonica & stones), Angharad Davies & Mira Benjamin (violins), Anton Lukoszevieze (cello), Dominic Lash (double bass), John Lely (electronics, harmonica & stones), Richard Craig (flute & electronics), Philip Thomas (piano), Simon Allen (dulcimer & glass harp), Dimitra Lazaridou-Chatzigoga (zither & electronics)

another timbre, at121

“Jürg Frey and Magnus Granberg are two of the musicians who feature most frequently in the Another Timbre catalogue. So, when the label commissioned two new works in 2015, it was no surprise that they were the chosen composers. Performed by Ensemble Grizzana, including a stellar line-up of AT regulars alongside Frey and Granberg themselves, the resulting pieces were premiered at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival at the end of November 2017, receiving a prolonged ovation and rave reviews. Fortunately, immediately after that concert, both were recorded and have been issued together on Early to Late so they can now be listened to and savoured repeatedly.

When commissioning the pieces, AT proprietor Simon Reynell expressed a wish that their music should have some kind of relation to Renaissance music, and this led to the compositions being based on Déploration sur la mort de Binchois by Johannes Ockeghem and O Lord, How Vain Are All Our Frail Delights by William Byrd. In fact, the new works sound like distant cousins of those that inspired them; it is possible to hear traces of the older works but those of Frey and Granberg are stronger. Although some listeners may choose to check out the Ockeghem and Byrd compositions, the new works can be fully appreciated in their own right without knowledge of the older ones.

One of the many fascinations of Early to Late is that Frey and Granberg were given the same brief and ended up producing different end results. Granberg’s ethereal “How Vain Are All Our Frail Delights?” allows players greater individual freedom than Frey’s more tightly co-ordinated “Late Silence”. In addition to the core instruments, from the options available within Ensemble Grizzana, Granberg and Frey chose to add quite different instruments, giving their pieces contrasting sound palettes; Granberg played celesta on his own piece alongside glass harp and dulcimer played by Simon Allen, zither by Dimitra Lazaridou-Chatzigoga and electronics by her, Richard Craig and John Lely; Frey chose for Granberg and Lely to both play harmonica and stones.

Despite such methodological differences, Frey’s and Granberg’s works complement one another so perfectly that they sound designed to be heard together. By meticulous placement of silences and sounds, each of them slowly but surely creates a mood compatible with Ockeghem and Byrd, one of exquisite melancholy. The resulting music is so subtly restrained and beautiful that anything played immediately after it can easily sound crass or tawdry by comparison. Consequently, this is one of those rare albums that one feels compelled to play again as soon as it is over. Ultimately, Early to Late must be judged to be a quintessential Another Timbre album, and surely there can be no higher recommendation than that. Already on my ‘best of 2018’ list.”

– John Eyles, All About Jazz

“Early to Late is an album which I’ve been eagerly waiting for for a while now. In 2016 (I believe), Another Timbre commissioned two new compositions (it’s first time doing so) with a vague concept. The new compositions must start from two short pieces of early music: Johannes Ockeghem’s Déploration sur la mort de Binchois and William Byrd’s O Lord, How Vain. These instructions were sent to the label’s two most prolific composers: Magnus Granberg and Jürg Frey. The pieces were both completed in 2017 and were premiered and recorded that November.

It’s a simple concept, but it’s perfect for this purpose. The composers were given, as far as I know, no instruction on how to be influenced by these pieces, or how to build from them, or how to write their new pieces. Having heard the original pieces, the connection is far from obvious, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t similarities between the two new pieces. They share a similar nostalgic air, although both composers approach this quite differently. Both pieces are also beautifully performed by Ensemble Grizzana (which includes both composers) on mostly the same instruments, allowing the pieces to aesthetically blend together rather than juxtaposing one another.

The first piece is Magnus Granberg’s How Vain Are All Our Frail Delights?, which clocks in at 41 minutes. For those familiar with Granberg’s work either with or without his ensemble Skogen, this piece likely won’t come as much of a surprise. Granberg’s work tends to land in the grey area where indeterminate composition and free improvisation meet. His performers receive an enormous amount of freedom when performing his scores, although they’re forced to stick to vague guidelines and frameworks where notes, sounds and timbres are pre-selected (or simply hinted at). Another oddity in his style of composition is that he typically bases his original pieces off of something pre-existing, so this new commissioned experiment lands right in his compositional comfort zone. He’s even based pieces off of “early” music before – the most recent Skogen album, Despairs Had Governed Me Too Long, was based on a 17th century piece by John Dowland.

What Granberg does so well with these pieces, and why he’s become one of my favorite modern composers, is that he writes music in a way that feels like he’s transcribing emotions rather than notes. The music is wide open and the performers can play with a huge amount of personality, but a certain emotional atmosphere is always held. In the past, that atmosphere was typically one of ambiguous melancholy. That may be true for this piece as well, but I think I’d rather call it nostalgic melancholy. The music is cold and uncanny, but it feels reminiscent of something more beautiful – perhaps that’s of the original pieces, or just of something personal and ambiguous. Either way, the result is fantastically moving.

I’d like to point out that the performances here are fantastic, and very different than his previous Skogen and Skuggorna och ljuset ensembles. Although I’m sure the performers have plenty of freedom, they play with great personal restraint. They actually do seem to play louder than either of those previous ensembles, and there are typically more of them playing at once than there were with the previous ensembles, but they play in a way which is rather impersonal. Rather than the soft spurts of self-expression which made Skogen so wonderful, Ensemble Grizzana lets the music speak for itself – if I didn’t know better, I’d almost expect this to have a straight-forward score. I can’t quite say that I prefer this approach, but the change of pace is appreciated.

The second piece is Jürg Frey’s 32-minute Late Silence. For those unfamiliar with the music of Jürg Frey, he is one of the pioneers of the Wandelweiser Collective and of contemporary lowercase (ultra-quiet, ultra-minimal) composition. At around the turn of the century, Frey was writing some of the most minimal music one could imagine. Over recent years his avant-garde nature has become more relaxed, finding room for melody and conventional musical beauty. His 2017 Another Timbre release, Collection Gustave Roud, featured a 48-minute piece titled Farblose Wolken, Glück, Wind which was likely his most ambitious piece yet. The piece drifted along in slow movements which seemed to have little to do with each other, several of the movements would even seem to entirely forget the performers who were just playing so beautifully. The piece had many conventional examples of melody and harmony, making it easily enjoyable, but as a whole it felt odd and full of confusing ideas. It was, in my opinion, Frey’s greatest piece yet. Late Silence can easily be seen as its successor.

Like the previously mentioned Farblose Wolken, Glück, Wind, Late Silence drifts by in odd movements. Despite the ten-man ensemble, there are seldom ever moments where over three musicians play together. The first movement lasts about 7 minutes and consists of a slow-paced repetitive piano exploration while surrounding strings provide uncomfortable support. Further movements have strings swell over the droning sound of scraping stones and violins and harmonicas exchanging harmonizing tones. Two particular moments feature brief piano solos. Although they’re short, they’re the most memorable moments of the whole album for me. They’re beautiful and minimal, recalling Frey’s fantastic Pianist, Alone pieces. The piano does sound beautiful on its own, but it’s the odd place within the composition that it makes it stand out as so truly special. It feels like an individual composition within itself – it utilizes a repetitive descending melody which sounds nothing like anything else in the piece, although it does sound like some of Frey’s former work. In the next movement we return to the same style of large ensemble abstraction, and it feels as if the gorgeous piano solo was immediately forgotten – no evidence was left behind.

Unlike in Granberg’s piece, Late Silence removes both electronic musicians and opts for a completely acoustic ensemble. The music is soft and relaxed, although it still invokes similar themes to Granberg’s piece. The strange crossroad between ugly and beautiful still appears, tugging at the listeners emotions in odd ways. The nostalgic melancholy returns as well – the music’s cold present seems to long for a warmer past. The layout of the composition may even play into this theme itself – could the oddly placed piano solo, as past-leaning as it was, represent a nostalgic look backwards to a beauty which is no longer anywhere to be found?

Presented back-to-back, these pieces work well. Although the pieces are fairly different from each other, they share enough common themes and aesthetics to allow Early to Late to be a comfortable listen. Magnus Granberg and Jürg Frey again prove themselves to be two of the strongest contemporary composers, although neither of the pieces fall far from either of their comfort zones. But still, Early to Late is a wonderful release which comes far from disappointing. I eagerly wait for more commissioned material from Another Timbre.”

– Connor Kurtz

[On Jurg Frey’s ‘Late Silence’]  “Single, clear lines from piano, dulcimer and strings perform a calm dance, evoking early music without by any means aping it. There’s a somberness befitting Ockeghem’s subject, tempered by extreme tenderness. The wonderful sound of sliding stones enters beneath the spare, solitary, grainy lines. As with much of Frey’s music, the sounds themselves are transparent and “simple” but their placement and their extraordinarily subtle placement provides endless fascination. When other elements are added, harmonica and clarinet in one section, for instance, there’s no feeling of overcrowdedness; they slip into the stream, enriching the sound field but never obscuring their cohorts. There are sudden shifts, as when the ensemble gives way to solo piano about 21 minutes in; one has forgotten how full the music had become. The mix of instruments shifts as the piece progresses (harmonica and flute are introduced), always retaining a strong connection to an ancient sensibility, slowed, parsed, and re-examined. ‘Late Silence’ fits right in to the recent run of gorgeous music by Frey, utterly enthralling.”

– Brian Olewnick, Just Outside

“Musical connections are often made via circuitous routes. I found myself thinking about this recently when attending a performance of Renaissance composer William Byrd’s music composed for virginal (a transverse plucked keyboard instrument similar to a harpsichord) played instead on a concert piano. I was drawn to the concert by the utilization of Byrd’s music by Jürg Frey and Magnus Granberg in two new pieces, rather than by any particular passion for music of the late 16th century. With that listening background, the transposition of the pieces to an instrument suffused with rich sustain and expansive decay brought a focus to the variegated polyphony that readily connected back to the recordings captured on Early to Late, a recent release on the Another Timbre label.

The genesis of this project took its own circuitous route. In the autumn of 2015, Simon Reynell met with Frey and Granberg to discuss commissions for pieces with a relation to Renaissance music to be performed by the two along with Grizzana Ensemble at the 2017 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Reynell was completely open as to how this would manifest itself, other than a desire that this hint of a connection be a guiding influence. The two centered in on two pieces for source material, “How Vain Are All Our Frail Delights” by Byrd and “Déploration sur la mort de Binchois” by Johannes Ockeghem. Each absorbed and refracted the foundational material in ways that underline their respective approaches to compositional forms and group interplay. Granberg’s piece coopts the title of Byrd’s piece, while abstracting it into a changeable temporal framework for clarinet, piano, strings, celesta, dulcimer, glass harp, flute and electronics. Frey’s “Late Silence,” instead makes direct use of the melodic lines of the source material as ephemeral melodic and harmonic threads for an acoustic ensemble.  

In an interview on the Another Timbre site, Granberg reflects that “my piece basically consists of a few different pools of materials (containing melodic and rhythmic fragments, extended melodies, single notes, chords, suggestions regarding timbre etc.) notated in conventional staff notation, along with some suggestions as to how to treat them, as well as a temporal structure which regulates when to play from which group of materials. Within these groups or pools of materials the musicians are free to choose what to play and when to play it, and the final outcome is very much a result of the superimpositions, juxtapositions and interactions of the musical materials, as well as of individual and collective processes of listening, deciding (intuitively or consciously), acting and interacting, or not interacting, with one another.” Granberg’s choice of instrumentation and performers, a component long central to his practice, is the key to the potency of the piece. Running throughout are grains of a melodic thread (a ‘cantus firmus’) played by Frey on clarinet, derived from melodic fragments of the source material as well as Jerome Kern’s “In Love in Vain,” which reappears and morphs through the ensemble during the course of the piece.  

The score specifies that “the Cantus Firmus is (…) to be played very softly, almost silently. And later: (…) the Cantus Firmus at times only being present within the mind of the performer.” These instructions and the textural range of instrumentation provides a plaint, ever-shifting focus of attack and sustain, with pizzicato pops and sharply articulated knocks countered by arco scrims and quavering overtones. The tonal elements mix effectively with subtle, abraded electronics which add an additional layer of timbral depth. Over the course of the 40-minute piece, the ensemble navigates these wafts of thematic memory with an assured conviction. In the interview noted above, Dominic Lash, a member of the ensemble, explains that “the process of playing required great attentiveness, but was actually a calm and comfortable experience as long as you trusted the group and the music – in a sense the fragility seemed to lie more in the sounding result than the execution.” Listening, one is struck by the way that the strata and gradations of the parts continually intersect, break apart and overlap informed and guided by patience and careful listening.  

In his program notes for the Huddersfield premiere Frey describes “Late Silence” as follows. “The material is raw but delicate. The language is non-rhetorical and precise. The form has a clear architecture; sounds and sections become present and disappear but don’t dissolve. The work of the composer is elemental – as is its absence when the composer lets the music go on without interference. Tonality is vaguely touched on, a soft, slightly wavering light in the music. Silence, memory, presence – this triad shimmers in the background and keeps the piece in a balance of clear decisions and wide horizons.” In writing the piece, Frey utilized phrases and themes from Byrd and Ockeghem with minor transformations, adding in his own melodic lines. He lays out these kernels with his usual resolute lucidity, plying instrumental lines against each other with measured composure.  

The ensemble traverses the score with assiduous resolve, as various instrumental groupings reveal themselves. Tonal relationships and melodic line play a far more central role in Frey’s piece than in Granberg’s with calm pools of silence serving as central compositional elements. Just as central to the score is Frey’s usual attention to the slow, unrushed passage of time.  While tonality and harmonic relationships are paramount, Frey calls on Granberg and John Lely to use stones (a possible homage to Christian Wolff) to add in hints of abraded textures at points along the way. But it is still the way that Frey places the long, drawn string arcos, crystalline piano part (played with command by Phillip Thomas,) pairing of clarinet and harmonicas, or the resonance of double bass within the unfolding sound field that define this piece.  

Hearing these two pieces together makes for an entrancing listen. The Granberg piece edges out Frey’s for me, but with patient attention, each listener will find their own way to navigate these absorbing readings.”

– Michael Rosenstein, Dusted