Notes among silences | Bleader

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Radu Malfatti: erasing notes
  • Radu Malfatti: erasing notes
As I mentioned in this week's Three Beats, 2012 is the centennial of brilliant composer and thinker John Cage. For many people Cage is just the prankster who composed 4'33", in which the performer does nothing but turn a few pages of sheet music for the duration. This radical 1952 composition shook to its foundation the public's understanding of what "noise" and "silence" meant, particularly the latter. Listen closely to "silence" and you'll realize that there's really no such thing—instead you'll experience an ever-changing symphony of small sounds, some of them generated by your own body's processes.

Cage and 4'33" are never far from my mind whenever someone brings up the Germany-based Wandelweiser Group, a collective of composers rooted in ideas similar to Cage's. Austrian trombonist and composer Radu Malfatti has been part of the group since the mid-90s, and his involvement is partly a reaction against the music he'd been creating for the previous two decades, when he was a leading proponent of free improvisation. He played in Chris McGregor's superb Brotherhood of Breath, a band that combined free jazz with South African kwela, and collaborated with heavies like Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, and Misha Mengelberg—but by the early 90s he was losing interest in improvisation. He's regularly cited a concert he played in September 1993 as a turning point: onstage he thought to himself, "Why are you doing this old stuff now? You don't want to do this anymore, do you?" Before long, he wasn't.

Malfatti felt that free improvisation had stagnated, becoming an idiom unto itself—a practice intended to be totally spontaneous and exploratory had, in his view, calcified into a strict language with its own set of rules. He used the word "gabbiness" to describe the music. As he explained in feature published last November in the Wire, "Gabbiness was a word I used to describe this idea of improvisers desperate to fill up the space." In his subsequent work he dramatically changed course, employing huge swaths of silence—a shift I found fascinating. We live in world that pulverizes us with sound, and it's only gotten worse as the Internet has become a dominant force in everyday life, overloading us with stimuli. Malfatti turned to composition over improvisation, and his new work became a model for what eventually got labeled "reductionism."

In 2003 he released a double CD called Futatsu, a set of three duets with Japanese guitarist Taku Sugimoto, one of his most devoted followers. One 41-minute piece was recorded live at Vienna venue Rhiz, and its isolated notes, often separated by silences of five or six minutes, are increasingly drowned out by the restless shuffling of the audience. In January 2004 I saw a performance in this mode by Sugimoto and others, and the music stands in front of the players seemed like a cosmic joke. If the silences had been excised, the piece would have totaled about 45 seconds of sound—but in reality it lasted about 45 minutes.

Still, there's a point in all of this. People seem to have an incredibly hard time listening closely these days—hell, it's hard to pay any kind of attention to anything for a sustained period. Outside of formal concert halls like Symphony Center, it's practically impossible to find a live-music event (even a formal presentation of nonpop music) where listeners aren't distracting themselves—whispering to their neighbors, stepping out for a smoke, checking their e-mail on their phone. I'm as guilty as the next person. Malfatti's music draws attention to the need for concentration. The sparse little gestures in his compositions seem outsized because there are so few of them, and the "silence" between them is there for contemplation.

Last year Malfatti recorded an ambitious three-CD set with the great British guitarist Keith Rowe (ex-AMM) called Φ (Erstwhile). The final disc actually featured the pair improvising together, albeit in a very spartan style more associated with Malfatti's work than Rowe's (though the guitarist is also fond of silence). The second disc consists of compositions by Malfatti and Rowe, and the first contains compositions by outsiders: Malfatti brought in Exact Dimension Without Insistence by Wandelweiser composer Jürg Frey, and Rowe brought in Solo With Accompaniment by Cornelius Cardew (an early member of AMM). In some ways the set reflects a less doctrinaire stance from Malfatti—he's not just willing to improvise, but to compromise in some ways. You can read about the process and its inherent tensions in this interesting interview with Malfatti and Rowe, conducted by Erstwhile owner Jon Abbey last year. This music, which relies heavily on theory, isn't for everyone—more likely it's for hardly anyone—but the questions it raises, particularly if we want music to be something more than background noise, are something we all can think about.

Today's playlist:

Salif Keita & Kante Manfila, The Lost Album (Cantos)
Various artists, Shrine: The Rarest Soul Label—Volume 2 (Kent)
Gerald Clayton, Bond: The Paris Sessions (Emarcy)
Adverts, Cast of Thousands: The Ultimate Edition (Fire)
Gonjasufi, The Caliph's Tea Party (Warp)

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