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Composer Portraits: Beat Furrer

“For each piece I want to create the material and the interrelationship of the intervals anew. Composing would not interest me if I had the impression that I was reproducing a well-worn concept rather than taking a step in a new direction. For sure, some works are recognizably linked together in that they turn on the same idea, but always that idea appears in a completely new light.”  — Beat Furrer                                

Beat Furrer (his first name is pronounced as two syllables, “bay-art”) was born in the Swiss city of Schaffhausen in 1954, had his early training at the music school there, and moved to Vienna in 1975 to continue his studies at the conservatory, where Roman Haubenstock-Ramati was his composition teacher. Meetings he sought with Luigi Nono were also crucial to him. His earliest works, dating from the first half of the 1980s, put forward a poetics of fracture and shreds, of bursts of intensity followed by long pianissimos, of narrative drive maintained under precarious circumstances, often involving irregular instrumental techniques. Soon his new works were being introduced by leading groups, including, in 1985, the Arditti Quartet (First String Quartet) and Ensemble Modern (Illuminations, setting Rimbaud for soprano and assorted instruments).

That same year he founded a concert series, with an ensemble that was to be formally established in 1989 as Klangforum Wien, and rapidly to become active internationally. Among the many works he has written for this outfit, Gaspra (1988), scored for an expanded Pierrot group of flute, clarinet, piano, percussion, and string trio, has, by virtue of its quiet, growing intensity, become part of the modern ensemble repertory, as has his nuun (1995-6), music of busy persistence for twenty-seven players, including two solo pianists. Other notable compositions of this period include Die Blinden, his first theater work, based on the Maeterlinck play and produced by the Vienna State Opera in 1989, and aer for piano, clarinet, and cello, which he composed in 1991, the year he joined the faculty at the conservatory in Graz.

Perhaps Furrer’s main theme is the anxiety of separation, felt by two people who have been close, by instruments whose relationships with others are strained, by sound leaving the instrument that was its source, by regular, reiterative rhythms amid others that are fluid and vice versa. Among his seven theater pieces, Begehren (“Desire,” 2001) is an Orpheus drama whose two singers, baritone and soprano, have difficulty communicating with one another. In FAMA (“RUMOR,” 2004-5), the audience sits in a tented enclosure within the auditorium, attending to messages played, sung, and spoken outside; the work has been performed widely since its enthusiastically received Donaueschingen première, and was presented by Talea Ensemble in New York four years ago.

Apart from the classic spur, tonight’s program focuses on compositions of the last few years, when his theater works have included La bianca notte (“The White Night,” 2013-15), whose protagonist is the early twentieth-century visionary-vagabond poet Dino Campana, and Violetter Schnee (“Violet Snow”), to a libretto by Vladimir Sorokin, on which he is working at the moment.


linea dell’orizzonte for nine players (2012)

Composed for the annual festival at Donaueschingen, this eleven-minute piece features tonight’s largest ensemble, comprising clarinet, trumpet, trombone, violin, cello, electric guitar, piano and two percussion players. In a soundscape of feverish flickering, more definite images come forward now and then – the first to do so are glissandos – but often to be given their own tremulous unreality by doublings that cause haze or distortion. Gradually the texture clears, on the way to a climax of forceful chords from the wind and string instruments. The material is perhaps burned up in this process, to leave a scatter of ashes in the last couple of minutes.


spur for piano and string quartet (1998)

Furrer wrote this piece for the Arditti Quartet and Ian Pace to play at the Wien Modern festival, giving it a title that means “track” or “trace” (as in the English word “spoor,” except that the German term can refer as much to a railroad track as to a trail of animal footprints). Though the word is used in the singular, Furrer’s music sets out multiple tracks, the piano and the strings most often proceeding differently, though at the same speed and with fleeting cross-references, which may involve just one member of the quartet. When piano and strings jump tracks, often after a sudden pause, they do so at the same time, whether each then takes over what had been the other’s way or both move into further dissimilar directions. A recurrent feature is the gabble of octaves and near-octaves in a single wobbling line, the kind of music with which the piano begins, against quick shifts, febrile colors, crescendos, and pizzicato upward arpeggios from the strings. One might think of a chase scene, snapping round corners, with effects perhaps at once hair-raising and comic. When piano and strings find themselves on the same track – and from the nature of that track – the finish is evidently in sight.


ira–arca for bass flute and double bass (2012)

The destined performers here, as often with Furrer, were longstanding members of Klangforum Wien: the composer’s wife Eva Furrer and Uli Fussenegger. Furrer treats their two instruments – which are sometimes hard to tell apart, made similar by the performing techniques chosen – as shadow and shadow: shadow chasing shadow, shadow enwrapped in shadow, the two moving with constant purposefulness through various shadowlands. There is often a sense with both, too, of vocal utterance, a kind of gasp forming a refrain in the early stages. About two thirds of the way through the twelve-minute composition, though, the instruments discover their “normal” personalities, distinct from one another. Something has been gained, but something, too, has been lost.

The title, meaning “anger-ark” in either Spanish or Italian, alludes, according to the composer, to a principle in Peruvian music, whereby a panpipe melody is played alternately on inhalations and exhalations.


intorno al bianco for clarinet and string quartet (2016)

Though many of Furrer’s works are for unprecedented combinations of voices and instruments, he has from time to time used standard formations, as in this piece and spur – and, from a different domain, in his sizeable output for unaccompanied choir. The title comes from a song by a late madrigalist from Venice, Pietro Antonio Bianchi, who died in Graz, the city where Furrer teaches. There is no reference to Bianchi’s music; what mattered were the words, “around the white,” with their suggestion at once of steady diffused light and of movement. Furrer completed the work in August last year, for a première in Florence the following month by Klangforum musicians.

Playing for almost half an hour, the piece begins very slowly, and continues that way a good while, as if vastly decelerated. Volume level, too, is generally diminished, as the strings draw out a music of stretched quarter-tone harmonies that move in extremely slow waves, the two violins rising and rising, then falling to rise again. The clarinet enters a little way into this process, which it joins and then, very gradually, subverts by proposing faster motion. Little by little, the faint white of the opening becomes dazzlement, the strings keeping to their track a long while as the clarinet turns to whirling, then participating thoroughly.

Halfway through, there is a pause, followed by a presto delirando in which the immediately preceding downward spirals are turned upwards. The music goes with tremendous virtuosity and energy, though also embraces quiet and tenderness. At the climax comes an exchange between clarinet multiphonics (chords blown by means of special fingerings) and noise effects on the strings. After that, though the clarinet and the strings proceed in different ways, they do so within a shared space. 


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Program notes by Paul Griffiths