I've had the Erstwhile 5 cd/ 6 hour release of l'âme est sans retenue 1 by Jürg Frey on my cd shelf for about a month. A few weeks ago, Erstwhile's Jon Abbey posted a message on facebook "digging both the reactions and non-reactions to 'l'âme est sans retenue 1'".....which gave me an idea. I teach a media arts class at my alma mater, Ohio University, which requires I drive between Washington, DC and Athens, Ohio 9-10 times during the August-December semester. It's roughly 350 miles and takes between 5 1/2-6 hours each way. I've spent much of the driving this fall listening to podcasts and occasionally music. (An appreciative nod to Jeremiah Cymerman's 5049 podcast and Jesse Goin's "Crow With No Mouth")
For my drive last week, I decided to listen only to Frey's l'âme est sans retenue 1. The composition's six hours is made up of a range of field recordings Frey had captured in Berlin in the '90s. The recordings fade in and out and are interspersed with varying lengths of silence.
Fortunately for me, most of the drive from DC to Athens is scenic. It takes you out of the DC metropolitan region, north through Frederick, MD and then due west through the
Appalachian mountains of Maryland and West Virginia which gradually dip into the foothills of southeastern Ohio as you cross the Ohio River. I began in DC traffic in chilly gray fog listening with headphones. After about a half-hour I found myself settling into what I was hearing with my focus on the relationship of "sound" and "silence" gradually changing. I remembered a line from what Yuko Zama wrote in her excellent Surround article about the composition:
"Listening....evoked in me a slow transition between seasons—watching the sunlight gradually weaken and the shadows increase as the autumn deepens—conjuring a tranquil flow of time."As I drove I found my thoughts wandering back in time to my own student days at Ohio U. I thought about the first music class I went to in the fall of 1979, Music 101, an "introduction to music" type class. Eugene Wickstrom was a raspy-voiced, rather mild-mannered looking professor and doubled as a local church organist. He played records that day; kind of an overview of what we'd be covering in the class. He started with some familiar classics and at the end of class pulled out a Columbia recording I'd never seen titled "The Complete Works of Anton Webern". He played "The 6 Bagatelles". It was a new listening experience for me. As class concluded, I asked Prof. Wickstrom about the Webern; muttering something in college freshmanese about recently listening to John Cage string quartets and finding similarity. He shrieked loudly "someone in this class has heard of John Cage!" It was the beginning of a wonderful friendship. Years later Gene was the best man at my wedding.
I spent all four years of college gaining knowledge of music and film I otherwise wouldn't have experienced; thanks in part to the ability to go through the large, diverse record collection in the school of music. My recollections of that past learning experience connected with something else Yuko wrote:
"Each stretch of sounds has slightly different impressions of texture and a sense of distance—sometimes thin or thick, sometimes close or far. These changes of perspectives and textures create an open, three-dimensional feel of space."
I was near the West Virginia border and several hours into l'âme est sans retenue 1 when it dawned on me my college experiences in Athens, almost 40 years ago, had been crucial in setting the stage for expanding how I "heard" and my want to listen to compositions such as l'âme est sans retenue 1 that I was at that moment experiencing on my drive leading me back to Athens and, as Yuko said, "conjuring a tranquil flow of time". Also, there's something within this particular listening experience that makes contemplation and reflection link together. Maybe it's the evolving nature of such lengthy duration that allows you to settle in so deeply. I made another connection back to my college days to a Musician magazine article from the early '80s about composer Maryanne Amacher's "City-Links" series. Amacher described City-Links as a way to "involve the sounding resources of 2 or more remote locations (cities or locations within a city): through electronic links music is composed, at spaces distant from each other, together in time." The distribution channels of several of the works of the City-Links series were radio stations, which broadcasted the sounds, recorded in public space and mixed by Amacher in a studio, back into the various ways in which people were listening to the program. I considered the way I was listening to l'âme est sans retenue 1 at that very moment....via electronic file originally sent to me via file transfer by Jon, uploaded to iTunes which was now being received via internet on my iPhone. A bit of a technological evolution from the City-Links concept of almost 40 years ago. another Yuko thought came back to me:
"The clarity and the whiteness of silence are consistently striking, heightening our sensitivity and emerging as the essential quality of this piece. As the music gradually evolves, the power relation between sounds and silence seems to invert. Sound sections become opaque and meditative as the silence seeps into our brains, slowly expanding their white presence in our mind. This sense of inversion between sound and silence is surreal – as if our inner worlds were gradually emerging onto the surface of reality."
After almost six hours into the trip I found myself not wanting this days journey to end. I'd enjoyed the "three dimensional feel of space", to quote Yuko, both from the sound source as well as the effect it had on my observations of the world around me. I took keen notice of changing cloud patterns, sun and shadow, shifting topography through the Appalachians and the passing variety of landscapes. Everything seemed to be working together. The composition had transitioned to a peaceful tidelike ebb and flow and away from anything resembling competition between "sound" and "silence". Another Yuko quote:
"Even though there were almost no obvious tonal music or melodies here, in several spots during the six hours, I felt as if I were hearing a hint of distant music—like a faint echo of some distant orchestral music lingering in the wind—which must have been actually emanating from the mixture of fragments of field recordings. Each time this occurred was such a breathtaking moment—a translucent mirage of warm scenery suddenly formed in our auditory sensation – just like the images of still lives in the Italian painter Giorgio Morandi’s watercolor paintings sometimes start to seem like nostalgic landscapes of autumn villages."
Upon arriving in Athens I stopped the car and removed my headphones. I thought about another facebook comment I saw about this piece: "It's incredible. Like learning how to hear." Call it personal nostalgia or good timing, but I felt like this composition was a catalyst in framing almost 40 years of listening experiences for me geared towards my decades long search of learning how to hear. The influence of this days listen returned me to this physical place in Southeastern Ohio that was instrumental in starting my lifelong listening journey and left me with a sense that maybe I'll get 40 or so more years to keep at it.