Wolff’s music offers no eay answers. Instead, it poses difficult questions. Such as:
– Why is the music constantly being interrupted? Or, is the music interrupting something else? (8)
March 16th 2010
Christian Wolff festival day 2
New England Conservatory of Music, Boston MA
The second day of the Christian Wolff festival continued in the same fashion as the first day, with shows at five and eight with a selection from the Prose Collection in between. There was also earlier in the afternoon a short lecture from Christian Wolff and a masterclass from Keith Rowe. I tried to make it to Christian’s lecture which was to be on how looking back at ancient history can be of value to contemporary music making but I couldn’t find the building that it was in. Across the street from the rest of the NEC campus is a building that is mostly storefront on the ground level. Well it turns out that there is a door there, marked only with the building number that if you go in there there is another bit of NEC. Well I didn’t find this until well past the start time of the lecture, at which point I thought it’d be rude to enter. So I went to Symphony Sushi instead and had a very nice lunch. I also didn’t attend Keith’s masterclass since I have been to a similar type of workshop with him and I figured this was more for the students. Keith later told me it was packed with around 50 people and it wasn’t really possible for the whole group to all play. A very thorough report of the masterclass was posted by Joe Morris on his blog and is well worth reading. I instead went to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts this afternoon, which while not having too much to offer the aficionado of modern and contemporary art did have a number of pieces worth seeing and of course plenty of early works of note. The Miró, pictured to the right there was among the most interesting to me, in that the cloud portion is unlike any Miró I’ve seen and very striking I thought. The other thing of real interest to me at the MFA is that they have the only historical clÃ¡irseach in the United States, the Bunworth harp.
The 5pm concert began with I am a Dangerous Woman (1983) a solo piano piece that was inspired by Joan Cavanagh’s feminist anti-war poem of the same name. The piece reminded me somewhat of last years Long Piano (Peace March 11) released on New World (which I wrote a bit about earlier) in that it began with a more formally structured section that was not strictly a march but in that vein. As the piece progressed this initial structure changed character several times, overridden by shorter segments that seem disconnected but eventually create a new kind of form. The piece concludes on much less strident note with a much sweeter, melodic nature. A nice piece, well performed. This was followed by Charles Ives String Quartet No.1 “From the Salvation Army” which was pretty much Ives, beginning with a round and the music sounding (as per its source) like classified Salvation Army Band times. I’m not a huge Ives fan and am far from expert so I’ll say no more. There was no information regarding a connection, real or perceived, between Ives and Wolff. I think you could place Wolff in an American tradition that includes Ives and certainly the use of existing folk material is a shared aspect. The group that performed this piece, the Borromeo String Quartet, has been the Quartet-in-Residence at NEC for seventeen years and are clearly a Boston institution. They played in that very animated style as if they were “rocking out” that I blame the Kronos Quartet for. The final piece of the afternoon was Peace March (Exercise #26) (1988) which was written for solo snare and published in Stuart Smith’s The Noble Snare collection. Here it was played as a duo with Christian Wolff on melodica and a Trent Leasure on the snare. This was a short, charming piece with the snare mostly in a muted mode and gently played with the hands. Wolff’s melodica was as far as I can recall just tones that came in and out amongst the sounds of the snare. A nice way to end the afternoon.
The afternoons piece from the Prose Collection was Play, which I have performed myself in several different groups some of which are archived here (scroll down to the Christian Wolff section) and one of which you can listen to as you read along:
Seattle Improv Meeting performs Christian Wolff’s Play.
Play, make sounds, in short bursts, clear in outline for the most part; quiet; two or three times move towards as loud as possible, but as soon as you cannot hear yourself or another player stop directly. Allow various spaces between playing (2, 5 seconds, indefinite); sometimes overlap events. One, two, three, four or five times play a long sound or complex or sequence of sounds. Sometimes play independently, sometimes by coordinating; with other players (when they start or stop or while they play or when they move) or a player should play (start or, with long sounds, start and stop or just stop) at a signal (or within 2 or 5 seconds of a signal) over which he has no control (does not know when it will come). At some point or throughout use electricity. (6, p. 8)
This performance was down in the stairwell below the statue of Beethoven and was a pretty diverse group of players including some electronics, a baritone sax, percussion, guitar, violin, bassoon and so on. I thought this performance was pretty good, lots of bursts of activity, pretty playful and evocative of the score. Of the three pieces performed from the Prose Collection during this festival I think this one was the most successful: it was engaging music and it really captures the essence of the score. When I looked at my notes that made I had noted several things that directly corresponded to the score (the bursts of activity for instance) and that says a lot to me. This is one of my favorite of the Prose Collection, one of those pieces where the instructions are simple but the ideas are profound. There is also a variant of this piece, the “Color Version” which pushes the complexity and interaction between the players and interestingly for a score includes a number of questions:
Are musical sounds to other sounds as black and white is to color? (6, p. 9)
As per usual the evening began with an electronic piece, this evenings was Snowdrop (electronic version) (1970). I’m quite familiar with the solo piano version of this piece, and this electronic realization was made up of intriguingly layered tones; quite different from the piano version. I’d like to hear this again to directly compare the two and figure out how exactly they relate. The program began with Vanessa Wheeler playing acoustic guitar and singing Dark as a Dungeon (Merle Travis) which is a miners song. This folk tune was used as a source for a piece of the same name by Christian Wolff for solo clarinet of which, though pretty far removed from the source, some elements came through. This I think is another good example of social concerns working their way into Wolff’s music but without pushing it in your face. Having a trad performance of the folk tune beforehand was a nice touch and a little more direct than whatever was implied with the earlier (and forthcoming) Ives piece. Three Pieces: Rock About, Instrument, Starving to Death on the Government Dime (1979-80) for violin and viola followed and I have to say that these really sounded great in the hall. All three were in that uncertain melodic vein so prevalent in Wolff’s compositions and the reverberation of the hall seemed to both reinforce that aspect and yet sustain them. The three pieces all kind of blend together in my mind but my favorite moment was a solo viola section in one of the pieces that really brought out the best of the room, sounding as if it was enveloping you in its rich yet hesitant sound. Another Possibility (2004), a recent solo electric guitar piece, was which was spare, angular and oddly jazzy at times. Overall it had this effect of almost making the player seem like he was hesitantly picking out the piece, like ones first read of a score, but he clearly was really solid and experienced with the piece. He’d pause at times and turn on distortion and continue playing, giving the piece some nice pauses and placing these sections in time.
More guitar followed this, a duo improvisation from Keith Rowe and Christian Wolff. There was some setup, a table was brought out with two guitars, Keith’s electronics and in between the two guitars Keith’s collection of manipulators. In front of Christian’s guitar was his melodica and on either side of the performers, matching Fender amps. They sat side by side at this table sharing the tools, but as only Keith had his electrics there was a nice divergence in sound. Wolff’s playing reminded me at times of the 60s AMM recordings where Keith used less and more primitive electronics, but even then had his own unique texture. He played Stones at one point, working with a pair of them that Keith had on the table, bringing out the sounds of stones as directed in that Prose Piece. Toward the end of their all too short performance he played a bit of melodica while Keith worked the fan and various electronics creating digital roar that the thin, sustained lines of the melodica snaked in and out of. Keith’s playing was of course compressed into the shorter time allotted for this piece but remained unhurried and rich all the same. He matched Christian in the beginning using various manipulators and tools on the guitar but began to add more abstract sounds from the electronics as the set progressed. As Christian played Stones, Keith’s sounds became more raw, using contact mics perhaps and bringing up the radio. By the time of the aforementioned melodica section he had the blurry wash of radio, effects, the roar of the fan all providing this striking contrast to Christian’s playing. Only about 12 minutes all told, but really engaging and a nice contrast to the other pieces we’d seen tonight.
After an intermission the largest group we’d seen yet, including a conductor, came out and performed the US premier of Quodlibet (2007). This piece was for a chamber group of rather diverse instrumentation including a percussionist placed a little ways away from the group. It began with just a few people playing and it tended to shift around the ensemble with lots of moving events mostly in little subsets. At times though quite a few members would be playing but while active it was never overly dense. I don’t really recall too much more beyond this about this piece, but there was something about it I found a bit unsatisfying, perhaps the larger group lost some of that fragility that I find so endearing in Wolff’s music. The following piece, Tuba Song (1992), though, was among my favorites of the entire festival. The piece was for two tubas, one slightly larger than the other (though I don’t know whether these are distinct instruments or not), widely spaced on the stage. A massive duet of rumbles, rattles and overlapping low tones. It brought to mind a ritual mating song of two alien whale-like creatures. The piece was in three movements, of which I found the first the most interesting in it’s use of the really low and abstract sounds. The other movements were also great, with a bit of that elusive Wolff melody working their way in. A truly great piece, it made me think of those Alvin Lucier pieces made up of duo sine waves but at the opposite end of the tonal spectrum. A beautiful way to end another really great day of music.
More pictures in my Christian Wolff at NEC flickr group.
1) Christian Wolff, Cues: Writings & Conversations Edition MusikTexte, KÃ¶ln 1999, ISBN 3-9803151-3-4
2) Christian Wolff, Dartmouth page
3) Christian Wolff, Wikipedia article
4) NEC’s Christian Wolff Residency site
5) Stephen Drury’s site
6) Christian Wolff, Prose Collection, Frog Peak Music
7) Christian Wolff Interview with Damon Krukowski, BOMB 59/Spring 1997
8) Stephen Drury, festival director’s notes