The Composers of Quiet

The Wandelweiser collective makes music between sound and silence.

By Alex Ross
Originally published in The New Yorker.

Wandelweiser is the name of an informal network of twenty or so experimental-minded composers who share an interest in slow music, quiet music, spare music, fragile music. The word might be translated as “signpost of change” or “sage of change.” It brings to mind a vaguely Romantic image of solitary figures meandering along circuitous paths. The composers live in Switzerland, Germany, New York, and California, among other places, and are seldom all seen together. Most of them take inspiration from John Cage; they understand his legendary work “4′33″,” in which the performer remains silent, not as a conceptual conundrum but as a practical point of departure. Eva-Maria Houben, a mainstay of the group, has written, “Music may exist ‘between’: between appearance and disappearance, between sound and silence, as something ‘nearly nothing.’ ”

This is not music for everyone. No music is for everyone, just as no language or no religion is for everyone. But Wandelweiser poses a particular challenge to long-established notions of how a piece should unfold. Silence overtakes sound to the point where the work seems on the verge of vanishing. More than once, I’ve put on a Wandelweiser recording, gone about another task, and momentarily forgotten that music is playing. Then a tone startles me, like a voice speaking in a room that I thought was empty. When the listener focusses intently, wisps of sound can become expressive characters, silhouetted against an empty expanse. The composer Jennie Gottschalk, in her new book, “Experimental Music Since 1970,” observes that the typical Wandelweiser piece is “not a duration to mark, but a space to occupy.”

This otherworldly music does not necessarily sound alien. Many Wandelweiser composers feel free to dwell on a sweetly consonant interval or chord. Such gestures are a departure from Cage, who generally allowed tonal materials only as meaningless flotsam and jetsam, and from his ally Morton Feldman, who treated them as melancholy relics. At the same time, Wandelweiser’s ghost tonality never achieves stability; it will frustrate those who expect one chord to lead logically to another. The composers enact a kind of double rebellion, both against a mainstream audience that pines for tonality and against an institutionalized avant-garde that spurns it. Through that twin negation, Wandelweiser breaks with the past, and is exerting a powerful influence on music of the new century.

The group formed in 1992, the year of Cage’s death. The founders—Antoine Beuger, of the Netherlands, and Burkhard Schlothauer, of Germany—had met at a far-left commune in Austria, and established a slightly cultish atmosphere from the start. Some Wandelweiser pieces could be mistaken for obscure meditation practices. Beuger’s “night music” can go on for eight or nine hours, and does not discourage listeners from sleeping. Manfred Werder’s “stück 1998” comprises four thousand sheets of music, each page consisting of an array of six-second tones that are interspersed with silences. If played from end to end, the work would last for well over five hundred hours, although so far it has been performed piecemeal, in different cities, page by page. Craig Shepard, who directs the Music for Contemplation series, in New York, undertook a project in which he walked across Switzerland for thirty-one days, writing a solo trumpet piece each day and playing it that evening. In some ways, Wandelweiser is not so much a style as a life style.

Other scores are of more manageable size. During a summerlong immersion in Wandelweiser recordings—they appear on a house label, Edition Wandelweiser, and also on Another Timbre, Erstwhile, Gravity Wave, and other small labels—I became addicted to the string quartets of Jürg Frey, a Swiss composer and clarinettist. In much of Frey’s music, achingly Romantic harmonies drift to and fro, as if a Mahler Adagio were suspended in zero gravity. In the Second Quartet (1998-2000), bows barely touch the strings, and pitches are blurred by eccentric fingering. Minor-mode harmonies emerge, but they have a whispery, spectral character. The Third Quartet (2010-14) comes dangerously close, by Wandelweiser standards, to possessing a conventional structure: it progresses from dusky, almost Chopinesque chords at the outset to something like luminous E-flat major at the end. It is too static and fragmentary, however, to provide a comforting neo-Romantic bath. The Quatuor Bozzini has made rapt recordings of the quartets, for Edition Wandelweiser; in a further challenge to contemporary listening habits, they are available only through mail order. (Erstwhile Records is the American distributor.)

Houben, a German composer, pianist, organist, and musicologist, likewise brushes against tonal harmonies in her music; they resemble figures in thick fog, familiar yet incorporeal. In her 2009 piano piece “abgemalt” (“painted out”), which R. Andrew Lee has recorded for Irritable Hedgehog, you hear at one point a D in the bass and an F-sharp in the treble; your ear naturally perceives a D-major-ish atmosphere, but when the bass descends to a C that impression dissolves. Like Feldman, Houben has a gift for evoking huge spaces with a smattering of notes. Some of her most impressive creations are quasi-improvisatory works for organ. A suite entitled “Orgelbuch,” with rumbling pedal tones and breathy hoots in the treble, suggests the noise that the king of instruments makes in the middle of the night, while the world slumbers.

Michael Pisaro, the leading American member of Wandelweiser, likens his approach to a move from city to country: “After a history walking down narrow streets, cluttered with shops and traffic, music is able to walk in open spaces, to measure itself against the limitless.” For Pisaro, who teaches at CalArts, northwest of Los Angeles, this is more than a metaphor: he often brings nature into his scores, by way of field recordings that are heard in conjunction with live instruments. The three-CD set “Continuum Unbound,” on Gravity Wave, incorporates a hypnotic seventy-two-minute recording of the sounds of Congaree National Park, in South Carolina, at sundown. Pisaro also reveals pop-music influences, which are rare in the Wandelweiser world. His vocal cycle “Tombstones,” which the singer-composer Julia Holter has recorded for Human Ear, alludes to DJ Screw’s remix of UGK’s “One Day” and to Bob Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell” (the line “All the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem” has been slowed to a crawl).

The hour-long 2014 work “A mist is a collection of points,” for piano, percussion, and sine tones (pure electronic tones), is one of Pisaro’s most formidable achievements. The pianist Phillip Bush and the percussionist Greg Stuart have recorded it for New World; last fall, they played it at Redcat, in Los Angeles. In some ways, the score diverges from the Wandelweiser norm, if such a thing exists. Much of the piece has an unsettled, brooding quality, with scattered piano pitches accumulating over sustaining pedal into dissonant clouds. Periodically, though, the texture thins out dramatically: in one remarkable passage, a crotale is repeatedly struck, its swinging motion audible against the laserlike clarity of the sine tones.

Only at the Redcat performance did I register the magic of the ending, in which the percussionist stands over a set of cymbals placed on the floor and pours grains of rice and millet on them. Stuart began with fistfuls of grains, creating a sound like a rainstorm or a chorus of crickets; later, following instructions in the score, he reduced the stream to a trickle, eliciting intermittent plinks. (Pisaro cherishes these rice noises, and also features them in a pair of pieces entitled “ricefall”; the International Contemporary Ensemble will perform the second at the Abrons Arts Center, on Grand Street, on September 16th.) Bush, meanwhile, played lone tones separated by huge intervals, ending on the lowest A on the piano. I imagined a bell ringing in a ruined cathedral and raindrops falling into a pool. This is the Wandelweiser illusion: from almost nothing, vast forms arise.