Music so finely poised between shadow and explosion must also have something to say about the act of poise itself – we are hearing not just different expressive modes but also the relationship between them, the way those modes interact and are juxtaposed. And poise is not quite the word, either: Beat Furrer’s music has an expressive daring, a wildness even, that goes beyond the sophistication of its sonic material. If his vocabulary is one of extended instrumental and vocal techniques, and his utterances characterised by the rapid and virtuosic succession of the resulting sounds, then it is the grammar of their combination that perhaps takes us to the heart of what his music is ‘about’. For all its variety, Nuun (1995–6, for two pianos and ensemble) seems to be made throughout from the same basic stuff. ‘I was interested in superimposing very dense layers of movement,’ Furrer says, ‘and filtering them step by step until at the end you have a very filtered structure, but one in which the lines of movement are still audible.’ Even at the very dense beginning, made out of repeating units so tiny and detailed that the repetition is barely perceived as such, this is movement carved out of stasis, as if a sculptor had taken his tools not to stone or bronze but to breath and air.
Perhaps another sign of a sculptor’s sensibility is Furrer’s persistent interest in classical sources. Not only Nuun, whose title alludes to the goddess Nu’s ability to stop time still (another sculptural conceit), but also his several operas and large-scale music-theatre works all draw on such sources. Narcissus (1992–4) is an adaptation of tales from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, while BEGEHREN (1999–2001; the title means ‘desire’ or ‘longing’) retells the Orpheus myth using both modern and ancient texts – Furrer’s own libretto is a collage of Ovid, Virgil, Hermann Broch, Cesare Pavese and Günter Eich. Even the Maeterlinck-based Die Blinden (1989) includes words from Plato; and the opera invocation (2002–3) and the extraordinary ‘theatre of hearing’ FAMA (2004–5) both supplement their main narratives (based respectively on Marguerite Duras’ novel moderato cantabile and Arthur Schnitzler’s short story Fräulein Else) with Ovid’s description of the house of Fama, goddess of rumour, which returns every sound that reaches it back to the world.
FAMA, first staged at the 2005 Donaueschingen Festival and subsequently as far afield as Brisbane and Beijing, represented Furrer’s most audacious and individual realisation to date of his ideas about music, text, sound and space. At some level all of his music is about the voice – is concerned, that is, with a highly original conception of the voice as source of both speech and song, and with the most extensive possible exploration of the spectrum between the two. His most recent work has continued to explore that spectrum, both in the theatre and in the concert hall. WÜSTENBUCH, premiered in Basle in March 2010, explores themes of memory and archaeology through the presentation of fragmentary texts as well as through the unmediated voice: lotófagos I, a detachable scene for soprano and double bass (Furrer has regularly used the combination of solo voice and a single instrument in smaller-scale concert works that serve as satellites to his music-theatre projects), uses the cry or scream to open up a space between communication and invocation.
Among other recent works, APON and Xenos II (both 2009) are for orchestra and ensemble respectively, joined in both cases by a speaker. Xenos (2008), for ensemble, and Xenos III (2010), for strings and two percussionists, are by contrast purely instrumental (although Xenos III requires one of the percussionists to speak into the timpani); but the musical material in all of these pieces is generated through spectral analysis of the human voice – that of an imam in Xenos, inspired by a month Furrer spent in Istanbul, and the voice of the composer himself in Xenos II – which is then resynthesised instrumentally. Again, a piece is made of a single substance or idea which appears in radically contrasted sonic manifestations: in Xenos, the ‘vertical’, chord-based sonorities of the opening and the exposed strangeness of the melody itself in the second half of the piece.
The sense of space in that opening section – its spectral simulation of different ‘rooms’, or chambers of resonance – touches on Furrer’s linguistic preoccupations too, since it is space (the space of the mouth and of the body as sound-producing chambers) that informs the precision of vocal action underlying both the phonetics of speech and the more unmediated expression of cry or call to prayer. The voice-like qualities of the flute, too, the player’s breath activating a range of expression from the shadow of whispered sound to the fullness of lyrical song, are undoubtedly one of the reasons that instrument has held such an attraction for Furrer. It joins the piano, another favourite instrument for him, in Presto, an occasional piece and a simple one maybe, but also an exemplary demonstration of how his thought processes translate into sound, and of how sound itself can be made to speak – to reveal the thought (of difference or togetherness, of utterance and echo) at its core.