I went down to New York a few weeks ago to hear a set of concerts curated by Craig Shepard. The first of the concerts included two solo improvisation sets, the first by Christian Kobi on saxophone and the second by Sean Meehan on percussion. At many times, Kobi was operating on a border zone between sounds, or at a level of sound approaching silence. He got some wonderful whistle tones with the soprano sax using a technique that involved muting it against his leg. His clear formal structures made the evolving richness of the sounds more apparent. One section included sustained notes of increasing amplitude. Kobi pursued this idea to its limits, as the sounds became more and more loud and unstable, until finally, though I don’t know how this happened, they became pressurized to a fine point. In another section, he set up what I heard as a quiet and intense storm, an inner percussion of the instrument. Meehan’s set was performed entirely with an ingenious configuration involving, if I got this much right, a cymbal perched on a snare drum with a stick coming out through the middle of the cymbal. I wish now that I had asked or looked more closely, but at the time it felt nearest right to just sit back and take in the depth and subtleties of the sounds that were produced.
The “two” concert included several pieces by Christian Wolff and a world premiere by Larry Polansky, performed as a continuous set. I enjoyed this approach, and the performances were very sensitive. I think I felt doubly disoriented, though, by being quite tired and not having a sequential list of pieces. I wish I could say more about it.
The third concert was a piece by Antoine Beuger, called Peckinpah Trios, played by Christian Kobi, Craig Shepard, and Beat Keller. It opened with a stretch of silence that set the tone and anchored the whole experience for me. Early on, it seemed that only the finest slivers of air were coming through the saxophone and the trombone. In later sections, the hush became deeper and more relaxed. Often the sounds of making sounds—breath and the fingers on the guitar strings, for example—were more present than the usual types of sound production on each instrument. I had the distinct feeling that all of the sounds were specially and spontaneously made for the occasion. This squares well with the controlled improvisation of the piece, and the strength of each of the players as improvisers. It was very much of the moment, from one moment to the next. They were listening and responding, it seemed, not only to each other and the constraints of the piece, but to the whole space and context.
During this performance, I started hearing different kinds of silence, not as labellable types, but as one might feel the quality of a room on entering it. I started thinking then and later about this: a silence has properties, like a space has properties. I’m sure all this could be—and probably has already been—better said, but I’ll make an effort at it anyway. The properties of a space are determined by its outer surfaces, or walls, as well as the objects and the air within it. The properties of a silence similarly have much to do with the sounds that surround and penetrate it and the acoustic properties of the space, as well as each listener’s own thoughts, distractions, and responsiveness. It was very productive for me to consider these ideas of what defines a space, and what defines a silence. They came up about a week later in my discussion with students at the Conway School of Landscape Design in relating my line of work to theirs. And now it is occurring to me that many of the silences encountered in the music of the wandelweiser composers are similar to stepping outside, where there are fewer defining elements. An interval of silence at the opening of a piece can have an effect similar to removing a ceiling. The sounds of the piece are set in relation to what is happening around them. And there is an influx of fresh air.