Will Montgomery ‘Five Ways of Looking at Manfred Werder’

1. Outside

It is June 2010 and there is a Spitalfields Music Festival event going on inside east London’s St Leonard’s church, where Shoreditch High Street meets Hackney Road. In the grounds of the church, however, something altogether stranger – and perhaps only tangentially musical – is taking place: a composer is sitting alone a bench. Werder’s six-hour afternoon performance is so unobtrusive as to be almost invisible. He’s sitting towards the back of the grounds. He barely moves during the 40 minutes or so that I am there. He is simply – or not so simply – attending to the world. The performance is a realisation of Werder’s text score 20101, which, in its entirety, reads: “the rarity of the énoncés / that immediate transparency that constitutes the element of their possibility” (note: English texts are given in this essay but many of Werder’s scores use German or French and some are bilingual). The phrase Is a quote from Michel Foucault on the énoncé (or ‘statement’), which Werder is using as part of a series called “found sentences”. In choosing this decontextualised fragment on the contextual nature of meaningful utterance, Werder seems to be isolating an idea of potential or possibility within everyday experience. One immediate priority is evidently to jolt performer and auditor into a new awareness of the immensity of the quotidian.  The busy Hackney Road is nearby and there are building works going on. Children play. A couple lie close to one another on the grass. No-one, in the time that I am there, sits near Manfred or approaches him (though for a period later on he is joined on the bench by the composer Michael Parsons). Indeed, while I am there I am the only spectator. Watching him listening, I begin to listen too and find myself beginning to respond to the unfolding of the humdrum around me. Then, although my first impulse is to listen, Werder’s quiet attentiveness causes me to pause and attend to the light conditions, the temperature, the vegetation, the various artefacts dotted around the church, the crossflows of human activity both seen and heard. When I email him after the performance he responds: “You arrived at a rather loud and windy moment – later it got astonishingly calm and warm. These changes make the city feel like breathing.”  The capacity for astonishment in such gradual monitoring of change is where I locate the “possibility” in the performance.

2. Inside

In January 2011 Werder gave a solo performance at POLYply, a poetry and performance series I co-run, in a venue in London’s Kings Cross. On this occasion, no musical instruments were involved. Nonetheless, Werder set in play a delicate relationship between intentional and non-intentional sound that quietly dismantled the boundaries between performer and auditor. He sat in near darkness on a simple folding chair with his back to the wall. On the floor nearby was an old portable cassette recorder. To initiate the performance, Werder leant forward to press the machine’s ‘play’ button. There was no cassette in the device but the whirr of the machinery could be heard. For several minutes he remained in a relaxed but motionless posture, appearing to listen impassively. The audience of about 40 gradually settled into a similar mode of attention, hearing the space in a way that had been impossible amid the noise of the various readings and performances earlier in the evening. Then Werder pressed the ‘stop’ button on the cassette recorder. He resumed his former posture and everyone in the room listened again to the sounds in and outside the room, this time transformed by the subtraction of the soft hum of the machine.  The score was 20102, a sentence from Francis Ponge: “the word VERRE D’EAU [ie GLASS OF WATER] would in some way be adequate to the object it designates… beginning with a ‘V’, finishing with a ‘U’, the only two letters that have the shape of a glass of water”. The text proposes an absurdly self-undermining analogy between word and world – one that can only underscore the contingency of that relation. Werder’s interpretation pointed up the interaction between the endlessly onrushing sounds of the world and a singular musical or performative event.  The glass of water became a room full of soundwaves. The audience wondered whether any audio – music, even – might emerge from the machine.  With the gesture of switching the cassette recorder on and off, Werder became a kind of instrumentalist and, at the same time, like us, a kind of auditor. The soft hum of the device and then the absence of that hum decisively altered our relationship to other ambient sounds for the duration of the performance.

3 Poetry

Perhaps it would be better to see Werder not as a composer at all but as an artist working across the fields of sound, text and performance. The piece 20051 – place/ time/ (sounds) – inaugurated the series of minimal text scores that Werder turned to after moving on from his monumental stück 1998 seiten 1-4000 project (a 4,000-page score that would take more than 500 hours to perform if realised in its entirety). The short text scores began with elliptical evocations of particularity (eg 20071, ‘a day a sound’). Werder then moved into short, list-like pastoral texts such as 2008³ (a hill/ a valley/ a mountain range/ a lowland/ a plateau/ a river delta/ a fjord) and 20086 (spider/ air/ eucalyptus/ wasp/ petals/ rain). In 2009 he began his experiments with found text drawn from poetic and philosophical works (citations from Francis Ponge, Fernando Pessoa, Alain Badiou and others). For Werder, the score acts as a point de capiton – or quilting point – at which various unstable vectors meet: word, world, performance, interpretation. “The plane of the score,” he writes in his “Text Scores – Statement (1)” is “a field of incidence – unassignable unpredictability.” Werder is clearly working in the event-score/ text score tradition as developed by John Cage, Christian Wolff, and Fluxus artists such as George Brecht. Some such scores contain no recognisable instructions at all. Brecht’s ‘TWO SIGNS’ from Water Yam, for example, reads simply: “• SILENCE / • NO VACANCIES”. Scores such as these make a small textual clearing that can open on to an artistic action of any kind or any duration. Werder’s found texts span genres. They can be read as standalone texts, as found poems, as the catalysts for creative acts. By using citation Werder complicates the authorial role assigned to the composers of text scores. The scores embrace indeterminacy, but in the actual realisation in specific circumstances by specific individuals the works can provoke an intensive process of preparation and dialogue. The purpose of this exchange is not to locate presumed compositional intention (though Werder may participate in rehearsal discussions) but to potentialise the text in particular settings. Werder’s recent text scores bring a level of indeterminacy to the interpretative process, yet the fact of citation inevitably brings another context into play. The phenomenological orientation of French poet Francis Ponge, for example, is clearly of relevance to Werder’s thought. The invocation of poetry as a cited mode of writing puts the text score into dialogue with a distinct art form. Indeed, the dense parcels of words used in Werder’s recent scores have, in my view, a para-poetic function whether or not the source text is a poem: issues such as citation, condensation, the perceptual process and the object world have been central to 20th century poetry of the modernist line, from Ezra Pound through William Carlos Williams and Robert Creeley to Larry Eigner and beyond.

4. Nature

A pastoral orientation appears to persist in some of Werder’s works. The Im Sefinental CD (Wandelweiser EWR 0905) contains recordings made by Werder (realising his 2008³) and Stefan Thut in a Swiss Alpine region usually described in terms of its natural beauty. Certain of his scores – eg 20082 “birches / a butterfly / swifts / bats / a fox” – depend on natural motifs. Yet Werder shares none of the holistic and ecological preoccupations that continue to inform a great deal of field recording activity. Although he is participating in the EU-funded Sounds of Europe field recording project, his artist’s webpage immediately outlines a distinct interpretation of “the field”. A quote from Ponge opens the text: “The field, as well, is a way of being. Let’s decide to drift there, today.” The world, for Werder, is unyielding and indifferent; it cannot be captured and it is not to be understood through its interactions with the mind of the artist. If there is a residual Romanticism, it is revisionary and self-aware, comparable perhaps to Gerhard Richter’s seascapes and cloudscapes – paintings of photographs that insistently pose the question of their own mediatedness. In a recent score, 20114, Werder cites the British philosopher Iain Hamilton Grant’s book Philosophies of Nature after Schelling: “depths are not the transcendental, but rather the transcendental is the surface of the world, while both are physical”. Werder’s Sounds of Europe statement points us towards Hamilton Grant’s interest in nature in Schelling, “not as it appears to Mind but nature itself”.  Werder wants to remove the frames imposed by the perceptual process in order to arrive at an “unconditioned reality”, where “all is permanently drifting in its own right”. In other words, Werder’s work does not simply present a series of listening exercises and it does not believe that the world is susceptible to microphonic capture. Rather, the work goes further, unsettling the subject/ object relationship embedded in the spectator/ performance dyad. “There is no outside to the performative,” writes Werder.  He asks us to imagine a world that is utterly – almost unthinkably – independent of the human perceptual and conceptual apparatus. Attending to the “transcendental” “surface” in 20114 means developing an openness to the overwhelming excess of the world, or what Werder, in his “Text Scores – Statement (1)”, calls “sensing and experiencing the vertiginous infinity of mere occurence”. The world, for Werder, is not an object, nor is it an arrangement of discrete objects somehow arrested in time for our apprehension. What Werder asks us to do is to put the spectator-performance relationship in suspension and try to imagine – against all possibility of actually experiencing – the reality that unfolds all around us and independently of us.

5. Music

Werder begins his short statement “The Sounding of the World” with a remark that places the human within a larger totality: “It is possible to conceive of music as the totality of all sound [Gesamtheit alles Klingenden] – a totality far exceeding the thin sliver audible to man. This totality of all sound – of which we are part – is the sounding of the world.” In interpreting his own work, Werder gestures at music with the use, for example, of small pipes in open-air performances. He is also happy for his scores to be performed by musicians in more-or-less conventional concert settings (such as the performance at London’s ICA in November 2011). At the same time, a performance might involve no sound-production at all by the performers (as in the realisation of 2007¹ on Japanese label Futow), or it might involve the capture of ambient sound rather than sound-production (as in the case of Jason Kahn’s realisation of 20051 for the Winds Measure label with 8 CDRs of urban field recordings). A score might be realised for an audience or in public situations in which no-one – or almost no-one – present was aware that a performance was taking place. Perhaps the most significant residue of Western performance conventions is that of persistent quiet attention, though it is to the unfolding world rather than to a discrete subdivision conditioned by the performer/ spectator transaction. In all musical performances that I have witnessed, the musicians have been nearly silent, though there is nothing in the scores themselves to enforce this. In his “Statement on Indeterminacy”, Werder cites Cage’s 4’33” and George Brecht’s Water Yam as “beautiful evidence of the efforts to be made in order to trace” an unavailable world. Words, then, cannot bring the world into being: they can only register a contingent “trace” of that world. So, a score such as “spider/ air/ eucalyptus/ wasp/ petals/ rain” is more a testament to the world’s unavailability than a conjuring in pastoral language of Nature. The world remains inaccessible to composer and performer, whose means of apprehending the world cannot escape the contingency of the human. Werder’s work appears to assent to the human embodiedness of our encounter with the world’s multiplicity, but at the same time to relativise that encounter, placing the human in a position of equivalence with other objects and processes of the world. Music, like language, becomes a provisional means of ordering the flux of the world. In Werder’s own terms, “Words, a score, a performer, a place, a listener, they all are permanently drifting – drifting along, they contingently meet as part of the world’s abundance.”


References and links

Video documentation of Werder’s St Leonard’s performance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QmaPoolHKEk

Werder text scores: http://uploaddownloadperform.net/ManfredWerder/Index

Werder’s Sounds of Europe webpage (also contains link to “The Sounding of the World” text): http://www.soundsofeurope.eu/artist/manfred-werder/

Werder statements: “Text Scores – Statement (1)” and “Statement on Indeterminacy”, both forthcoming in Word Events: Perspectives on Verbal Notation, eds John Lely and James Saunders (London and New York: Continuum, 2012)

Werder’s blog: http://manfred-werder.blogspot.com/