Chicago: The Unbearable Intimacy of Wandelweiser

Chicago: The Unbearable Intimacy of Wandelweiser

From September 20-22, 2014, Chicago concertgoers had the rare opportunity to experience the music of the Wandelweiser group, the John Cage-influenced artistic collective based in Germany. An exciting example of Chicago arts institutions working together on a project too ambitious to spearhead alone, the Chicago Wandelweiser Festival was a joint endeavor between Nomi Epstein (composer and artistic director of a.pe.ri.od.ic) and Peter Margasak (music writer and organizer of the Frequency Series at Constellation), with support from the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago and the Swiss Cultural Institute.

In spite of the relative aesthetic unity of the Wandelweiser collective, all three evenings of the festival offered something quite different. On the first evening, a.pe.ri.od.ic performed three works of Jurg Frey, celebrating the release of their new all-Frey disc, More or Less, with the composer in attendance. On the second evening, University of Chicago musicologist Seth Brodsky moderated a panel discussion between Frey, Epstein, composer Eva Maria Houben, and pianist Andrew Lee. After the discussion, Lee offered a solo recital featuring works by a variety of Wandelweiser composers. On the final evening, Houben gave a fascinating recital of her solo organ works in the amazing Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago.

Wandelweiser composers are known for embracing silence, fragility, and spontaneity. In preparing to attend the festival, I knew that it would demand a special kind of coverage. I wanted to create a sense of intimate dialogue about the music — the same kind of dialogue, perhaps, that these composers have with each other about their work.

But in order to have a dialogue, there has to be more than one writer. So I asked my friend and colleague Andrew Tham to join me in attempting to create a new kind of concert review: one that embraced, rather than attempted to deny, our subjectivity; one that could be a bit rough around the edges.  What follows is the story of our experience of the festival.

Exhibit A: Scared to Write About Music
When: September 20, 2014, 8:27 p.m. – Concert #1
Where: A seat in the back row of Constellation / A stoplight at Belmont and Western, Chicago, IL
What: During an exchange of text messages, McSweeney follows up on Tham’s earlier email which mentioned that he’s been “scared to write about music lately.”

tham1 tham2

Exhibit B: Armrest Etiquette 
When: September 20, 2014, 8:41 p.m.
Where: Two seats in the back row of Constellation, Chicago, IL
What: Copies of the authors’ notes as the concert begins. Tham muses about who should get which armrest in a concert seating situation, while McSweeney notices the presence and absence of ego in Frey’s music.
Soundtrack: Jurg Frey, More or Less Normal, performed by a.pe.ri.od.ic

andrewnotes1
tham3

Exhibit C: Felt Like We Were Trapped
When: September 21, 2014, 8:58 p.m.
Where: Two seats in the back row of Constellation, Chicago, IL
What: As the concert continues, things get tense.
Soundtrack: Jurg Frey, 60 Pieces of Sound

60pieces

Exhibit D: CRUNCH
When: September 27, 2014, 1:35 p.m.
Where: The authors’ laptops in Edgewater/Humboldt Park, respectively
What: During a post-festival gmail chat, Tham reveals having had an accidental Wandelweiser sonic performance experience with a paper cutter.

Screen Shot 2014-10-06 at 12.24.24 PM

tham_gmailchat2

Exhibit E: At Least We Tried
When: September 30, 2014, 9:30 a.m.
Where: The authors’ laptops in Edgewater/Humboldt Park, respectively
What: Tham expresses his aspirations for this article.

tham_aspirations

 

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4 thoughts on “Chicago: The Unbearable Intimacy of Wandelweiser

  1. Paul

    “I wanted to create a sense of intimate dialogue about the music — the same kind of dialogue, perhaps, that these composers have with each other about their work.”

    “I asked my friend and colleague Andrew Tham to join me in attempting to create a new kind of concert review: one that embraced, rather than attempted to deny, our subjectivity; one that could be a bit rough around the edges.”

    Hallelujiah! That is the kind of review I want to read! It’s the kind I want people to write about my own music!

    “I just want this review to something that people want to read, not something that people feel like they’re supposed to read.”

    YES!

    “Maybe by presenting this as a series of conversations instead of a sort of objective piece of journalism…”

    That is _exactly_ what all music reviews are; they run into trouble fast when they pretend to be anything else.

    “…we will break that cycle that you and I drea. Or peple will just think it’s gimmicky and immediately dismiss it.”

    You are on to something gold here. The fragments of this that talked about the music — and the paper-cutting episode, which was also about music! — were a delight to read.

    The screenshots are gimmicky. Lose that, but keep the conversational flavor, the subjectivity, the tangential thinking, the philosophical musings, and the little flashes of unexpected insight … and I will certainly keep coming back for more!

    Reply
  2. John Pippen

    this exchange resonates with me more than anything I’ve read about new music for a long time. I know exactly what THAM means about trying to keep up with the content. it’s like I’m supposed to know everything that’s happening all the time just because I’m really into this. But that’s impossible, right? How can I possibly keep up with everything that’s happening? It’s really hard too, because I’m supposed to be this academic knows a lot about new music. So every time I don’t know something it’s like I’m not really back that good an academic. Imposter syndrome is something that gets talked about a lot. And I guess I’ve made my peace with it to some extent. I think it’s hard too though because I really care. I really do want to know about all the cool things that are going on and it’s really hard for me to read about all these awesome concerts and events that I never get to go to. I really enjoyed this exchange. I feel like a it made me really interested in the music without really telling me very much about the works, but it also made me think about some of the things that that music might be about like silence and how silence is created by people. Great job you guys.

    Reply
  3. MWnyc

    Okay, I’ll say it: This did not work for me at all.

    I was led to this article by a link from ArtsJournal.com, where the blurb quoted Ellen: “I asked my friend and colleague Andrew Tham to join me in attempting to create a new kind of concert review: one that embraced, rather than attempted to deny, our subjectivity; one that could be a bit rough around the edges.”

    I found that idea very intriguing, and rough-around-the-edges didn’t worry me. If most of the review had been like Exhibit C, I’d have been happy. (And which one wrote Exhibit C? I’m guessing Ellen.)

    But I think it’s reasonable to expect that a concert review will discuss the music and performances at hand – and not devote the bulk of its space to one author’s mishegas around writing about music, sharing an armrest (?!), using a paper cutter (??! – Dude, have you never worked in an office before?), and keeping up with new music.

    (Not to mention the texting-while-driving, for which Andrew deserves an extra ten years burning in Purgatory. At least, since he gave us all a confession with name, exact time, and exact location, maybe the Chicago PD can still ticket his ass.)

    Reply
  4. Jon

    Have to agree with MWnyc. I don’t mean to be harsh, as I certainly support the authors’ intended goals of finding fresher, more compelling ways to approach music criticism. But I think they need to keep trying. I want to hear about the music, not how the reviewers feel about armrests and paper cutters. And statements like “There’s kind of an egolessness to that first piece. And the beginning seems to promise anonymity but in the end intense relationships are revealed” sounds profound, but doesn’t give me any sense of what the music actually sounded like. I know writing interesting reviews is really hard, and the standard format can seem pretty worn out, but I don’t think this is the answer. To me, the best critics manage to both describe the music vividly, and also to connect it to larger aesthetic/societal concerns. The approach above, rather than expanding outward from the music, just moves further inward. I think the new music world to the outside already seems excessively navel-gazing — a small cadre of specialists obsessively concerned with what they and their specialist friends are up to — and this kind of approach only reinforces this. To my mind, this is the opposite of what needs to happen if we are to make new music and new music criticism relevant forces in society.

    On the other hand, obviously this worked beautifully for some people (see the first two comments), so maybe there’s a place for this sort of approach in the music criticism ecosystem. It didn’t work for me, but certainly I applaud any efforts to revitalize the frequently moribund field of music criticism.

    Reply

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