The disc at hand offers two more examples of the Workshop in action, in Frey’s ephemeral constructions (2015-16) and circular music #6 (2015). Those two pieces – the former more than 40 minutes in length, the latter just shy of 24 – frame a much smaller work of not quite five minutes’ duration, circular music #7, played by Frey on clarinet, Carlson on violin, and Stuart on percussion.
That trio musters a rich, supple sound for Frey’s simple, melancholy lullaby sequence of tones and chords. The music moves slowly and continually, yet never actually progresses. It’s a velvety expanse in which to escape, to spend a while in pleasant contemplation, or to allow frayed nerves to mend. (I’ve employed it for all three of those reasons in just the past week.)
Those three players remain distinct and evident when absorbed into a larger body of players on circular music #6. Here, the effect is less tranquility and reverie than inquisition and subtle, continual change. The composition’s form is less evident than in the trio piece due to its longer duration and thicker instrumentation, including numerous varieties of percussive noisemakers. Intentionally or not, the resulting din resembles that of a nature walk, a gently anarchic concatenation of chitters, whispers, rustles, and hoots, such as one might hear during a woodland meander.
Similar terms could be used to describe the sound world of ephemeral constructions, which for its initial long minutes might be mistaken for a percussion-only piece, so prominent are sounds of wooden and metallic impact. Some six minutes into the work, Stuart’s vibraphone rises through the din with a two-note pattern played slowly and repeatedly: C-sharp, B. C-sharp, B. C-sharp, B. Carlson’s violin emerges, engages, takes over; when Stuart’s vibraphone returns, it is reinforced by other instruments, producing rich intervals and chords. Later, the violin will have its turn with anxiously repeated minimal gestures, while percussive sounds rustle and percolate all around.
What formal structure underlies the composition is a mystery that doesn’t especially demand to be solved. A quotation from Frey’s Sketchbook (2007), printed inside the otherwise characteristically spartan Edition Wandelweiser package, seems perfectly apt:
the persuasive, coercing power immanent to structure must be avoided.
structure then becomes fragile and permeable, allowing the ephemeral to unfold its presence, and, in this presence, to evoke a gleam of permanence.
a substantial part of my work takes place in this intermediate zone.
As in all forms of minimalism, absorption is its own reward. Allow yourself to grow attuned to the work’s tiny noises and seemingly random occurrences for some 18 minutes, and the chords that arrive without warning at minute 19 feel like oversize epiphanies. With ears re-calibrated by those larger gestures, you can’t help but notice all the smaller sounds – breaths, rustles, other tactile frictions – hovering just at audibility’s limits.
Neither a rigidly bound construct in which the passage of time is palpable, nor a sound-installation concept to which time is extrinsic, ephemeral constructions strikes me as something in between. Frey delineates a bordered parcel of time, more or less, and fills it up, more or less: not with a strict sequence of motifs and progressions, but with fleeting impressions and sensations like those of an amble taken with no particular cause or course.
“[T]here are days in which it is enough to walk through a stony pasture,” Frey’s liner note offers. Indeed – but if no stony pasture is at hand, ephemeral constructions might suffice equally well.