Is silence golden? Welcome to ‘the last frontier of music’

Ten years after I first heard of Wandelweiser, Louth Contemporary Music Society has brought it to Ireland

Ten years ago I interviewed the Paris-based American composer Tom Johnson before a concert he gave in one of Siobhán Cleary's Ireland Promoting New Music concerts. Johnson was music critic of the Village Voice in the 1970s, and his writings are an important record of the early years of minimalism in New York. He has said of his 1971 review of Steve Reich's Drumming that it was probably the first occasion when any of the minimalist composers were taken seriously by any of the New York press.

So, even though he was no longer a critic in 2006, I couldn't help asking this one-time chronicler of the cutting edge where he thought the cutting edge was in the 21st century. He mentioned the laptop generation, sound installations and then, silence. "It's like the last frontier in music," he said, "the thing that everybody's been afraid of for years and years. There is a whole school of people who are writing long silences. It's called Wandelweiser."

Ten years on, it has fallen to Eamonn Quinn’s Louth Contemporary Music Society to bring Wandelweiser to concert audiences in Ireland, although Cork’s Quiet Club and Quiet Music Ensemble have already carved out a distinctive native niche in that general area.

Louth Contemporary Music Society presented five concerts over Friday and Saturday as a series of Music Books: a Book of Light and Shadow, a Book of Love (with a children's chapter), a Book of Elements, a Book of Quiet and a Book of Songs.


Music Books' quietest music is easy enough to describe. German composer Jakob Ullmann's Müntzers Stern (Müntzers Star), takes its name from the religious reformer Thomas Müntzer (1489-1525), who opposed both Luther and the Catholic Church.

Ullmann's work, being performed for the first time, is for solo bassoon (Dafne Vicente-Sandoval) and a recorded voice reading Müntzer's Von dem getychten glawben der Christenheyt (On the Imaginary Belief of Christendom).

The words of the text can be heard, but at a volume so low they cannot be readily deciphered. The bassoon plays mostly on the cusp of silence, with individual notes sounding like they have been stretched out for inspection, the instant of articulation enlarged as if through an exploded diagram. Think of a moment of musical time stretched out by a computer for detailed inspection, or a drop hitting the surface of a liquid in slow motion, with the transient distortions of shape, the fleeting ripples and the microdrops of spray held long enough for the eye to grasp them.

There are a few shocks, places where the bassoon plays a note in something approaching a normal fashion, and coming across in the super-quiet setting with almost the impact of a foghorn.

Vicente-Sandoval’s control, held over the piece’s 50-minute span, was simply astonishing. And there’s no gainsaying the fact that aural perspectives change when attention is focused on sounds so concerned with ethereality. Maybe my expectations were askew, but the potency of the individual note or micro-gesture that I have found in a lot of super-soft music didn’t materialise. Or perhaps the physical layout played a part: the performer felt to be apart, seated in a lower-ceilinged part of the Dundalk Basement Gallery than the listeners.

Individual notes

Swiss composer Jürg Frey's 24 Wörter (24 Words) of 2007 is a series of songs on single words for soprano (Keren Motseri), violin (Diamanda Dramm) and piano (Ian Pace), from Fremdheit (Strangeness) and Herzeleid (Heartbreak) to Halbschlafphantasie (Half-Sleep Fantasy) and Vergessenheitsvogel (Bird of Oblivion). The music is made of spaced-out individual notes and sounds not so much dropped into silence as released to float and glow briefly before fading. The effect is not unlike some of the indeterminate pieces of John Cage and Morton Feldman, and the music is every bit as dependent as those composers' works on perfection in the moment of delivery, which is exactly what Saturday's performers at St Nicholas Church of Ireland achieved.

The weekend's offerings were not limited to the quieter end of the spectrum. Frey's works shared the programme with the stark, dogged Sonata for violin and piano written in 1952 by Shostakovich's favourite pupil, Galina Ustvolskaya, and the imposingly lugubrious settings of Henryk Górecki's 1980 Blogoslawione piesni malinowe (Blessed Raspberry Songs), sung with fervent darkness by baritone Gavan Ring.

Ian Pace also gave a solo recital in the Oriel Centre at Dundalk Gaol, playing Scottish composer James Dillon's complete The Book of Elements. This is a large, complex, allusive work, written in a strongly gestural manner, which Pace's subtly- voiced playing always kept lucid and engaging.

Ullmann's was not the only new work of the weekend. Lithuanian composer Onute Narbutaite's Heliography for soprano (Motseri), viola (Garth Knox), cello (Agnès Vesterman) and percussion (Sylvain Lemêtre) sets fragments of texts by Edmundas Gedgaudas and Vaidotas Daunys that relate to photographs of Vilnius. The subject of the sun was suggested by Eamonn Quinn for this Louth Contemporary Music Society commission, and the music has a distilled quality, featuring sounds as a kind of essence, often polished and glinting, and also sometimes dissipated, as if recording the afterlife of an energy source.

The children's chapter involved third-class children from Réalt na Mara National School, in a work they composed under the guidance of composer Deirdre McKay, Music Generation Louth tutor Helen Kearns, Garth Knox and Agnès Vesterman. They played it with that special focus children bring to absorbing experiences.