A Concert at the Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ: Seth Josel, Raphael Vanoli, Ben Frost, and Their Friends

Last Friday evening at the Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ here in Amsterdam, under the auspices of the Amsterdam Electric Guitar Heaven festival, and in co-operation with the Bimhuis and that very active impresario at Viral Radio and inhabitant of the “continuous partial everywhere” Juha van ’t Zelfde (who is himself a musician and DJ), an event was held that will I’d wager be remembered as one of the highlights of the season. At the center was a tripartite concert given by the guitarists Seth Josel (an American living in Berlin), Raphael Vanoli (a resident of Amsterdam with a Franco-German background), and the music producer and composer Ben Frost (an Australian who lives in Reykjavik), which was both preceded and followed by several other acts, including sets by the DJs H-⁠SIK (Hervé Sika, from the Ivory Coast and living in Haarlem) and Gerri Jäger (from Austria and now living in Amsterdam), and live performances on keyboards by two musicians living in Berlin, the guitarist and synthesizer-player Claude Speeed and the DJ and producer Kuedo (a.k.a. Jamie Teasdale). Although top billing did go to Frost, all of the performers, in their various ways, excelled musically and also in some instances technically, while the evening fulfilled and even exceeded the expectation held by those who planned it, and also, I think, by those who attended, that it would form a whole.

However, lest the parts thereof – or at least some partial views of it – get overlooked, photographs of the event taken by van ’t Zelfde may be viewed at his Instagram page.

As for me, the following will comprise something between a full report and a sequence of separate remarks about the different piece of music that were played; even though, as it seems to me, there were many significant interrelationships amongst the latter – by virtue of the sum of which, after all, the substance of the evening would have been constituted as a whole – I simply won’t be able to venture into that wider field here.

So: in the first of the concert’s three parts, two different versions of Morton Feldman’s composition from 1966, of which the score was presumed lost for many years (a collateral victim of an automobile robbery), “The Possibility of a New Work for Electric Guitar,” were performed by Seth Josel, who’s written it down again on the basis of a recording which recently surfaced out of an archive in Berkeley.

This new notation of the work Josel presented first seated on a cushion, his guitar laid flat on the stage, and the style in which he played corresponded to this posture; the notes were pristine, appearing and disappearing as rapidly as he plucked them into existence, without being prolonged by any reverberation: and the passages that elapsed between them were just as quiet as the sounds were definite.

Now a few words about Feldman’s composition are in order. It’s rather fitting for a work whose score was lost and much later found again, that it be a work about the musical score as such and its constitution; for what this piece gives us to hear is the remainder that’s left over after a full-fledged score on paper was subjected to a great erasure from which only a few small groups of notes were spared, for this or that or perhaps even no verifiable reason, all the others having been entirely effaced: when then the survivors of such a decimation pass so briefly in revue through the auditorium, each of them individually is nearly bereft of the complex of interrelations within which they once would have “made sense,” and each of them in the isolation of their fleeting brevity could represent an index of that antecedent action and might succeed in rendering it palpable to the audience. If they do so, this would be a work in which silence and sound abut each other uneasily and in a manner that may be called “antiholistic” – for, after all, if here the strange juxtaposition of sound and silence summons to mind some original destructive act without which this composition would never have been made to begin with, the musical result, in other words, will be something other than a whole – actually, this mournful sequence of parts that don’t add up to a whole is akin to a cenotaph, in fact.

Such an ante-musical act would itself resonate symbolically in the midst of a century replete with decimations.

Yet to leave this broadest context aside (as this is not the occasion even to begin to discuss it): that first act, as a preliminary moment in the process of composition, would seem to be able to engender meaning in inverse proportion to the number of musical means that remain – as long as the reduction halted within certain limits, of course. The rationale evidently was that the ground needed a clearing, if from the musical remainder new arrangements were to be composed.

How new layers of music can spring up from or cover over a field laid waste – and how quickly they can do so – it was one of the virtues of Josel’s second version of Feldman’s work to demonstrate. This time he performed in the usual guitarist’s posture, utilizing the usual technique, and with a standard amount of reverberation: in the result, with echo now gradually impinging on what in the previous version had been stretches of utter silence, it was as though the patches of the music that had survived the prior destruction were ramifying and the new growth was beginning to reclaim the barren spots, causing the silences to vanish little by little in the face of a piece of music that, while not yet one, was no longer quite nearly to the same degree not a whole, either.

Next in the line-up was Raphael Vanoli, who performed music of his own. It may have been improvised to some extent – Vanoli, who with Gerri Jäger founded the band Knalpot, must have considerable experience in improvising – or it may not have been, but the soundscape he elicited from his instrument was drawn con amore. Often bending over it protectively, and then also frequently tilting it up in front of his head, he at times interfered with the audience’s ability to observe his actual technique, a reticence on his part which had its reasons, as in it he brought a couple of unusual innovations to bear. Although, given the visual obstructions, I cannot say with certainty that this is what he was doing, it did seem as though he used not only his fingers to play, but at certain moments his nose – akin to a less-than-prehensile but still functional eleventh digit – as well, and even a number of times his lips – which were capable of educing from the strings several pizzicati at least.

The program guide had described Vanoli’s soundscapes as being “hypnotizing,” but this term was thus an apt one for the actual mode of his performance as well – both were in their different ways riveting. In fact, as regards the innovative character of the technique, this second concert represented the high point of the evening.

Frost’s piece “Music for 6 Guitars,” in its Dutch premiere, was the last played in the concert itself. On stage, on electric guitar, Josel and Vanoli were joined by Jeroen Kimman, Daniel Rejmer, Bram Stadhouders, and Patricio Wang as well, and this ensemble was complemented, to the side on the balcony and, most likely, at the rear of the auditorium, by a wind section comprising Adam Toth, Alejandro Luque Belmot, and Susanne Baai on the trombone, Caroline Bovee and Rolf Verbeek on the horn, and Roel van der Zande on the trumpet; while Frost himself, somewhere off stage, had his hands full with the electronics and with providing direction to each of the guitarists individually via headphones – for the sound of each of their six instruments was subject to variable amplification throughout the course of the piece, even at points in effect being turned off altogether, and overseeing these modulations and, presumably, guiding the musicians through them constituted one of Frost’s tasks during the performance itself.

Thus, with this work, Frost (who will return to the Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ next year in April) explored the boundary-area between composing and conducting: far more than is customary, here the usual divisions in the performance of music between giving, transmitting, and executing the direct orders otherwise known as musical notations were thrown into doubt; while in the composition itself other boundary-areas were explored, such as the one where sound-sequences have nearly lost their definite shape and stretch out indefinitely as a drone, or the one in which the audience has nearly been precipitated entirely into a trance-like state – yet not quite. In both cases the music hovered on this side of the threshold, so that, in the first, one heard at most the beginnings of a drone, and in the second, it was only the first stillness of the trance that began to break over us; whether it separated sounds or states that were different in kind, it was the boundaries between them as such that Frost’s piece extruded and which impinged on the audience’s awareness.

Drones and trances: something of the sonic conditions of the dances or raves which, as seems likely, several of the evening’s participants must have attended in their youth, was thus replicated within Frost’s composition; and this recollection of sounds past – if it was not rather a mere echo of what goes on in today’s parties – was underscored by some of what one heard in the after-concert performances, each accomplished in its kind, by H-⁠SIK, Jäger, Kuedo, and Speeed.