Christian Wolff at NEC Day 3: Keith Rowe 3

March 17th 2010
Christian Wolff festival day 3
New England Conservatory of Music, Boston MA

The final day of the the Christian Wolff festival at NEC was one of the days I was anticipating the most.  The afternoon concert was entirely dedicated to Burdocks (1970-71)  which is a fantastic score that I’ve heard a number of quality realizations of.  The score calls for one or more groupings of players and for this concert they had organized many groups, virtually everyone we had seen perform to date and more.  They tended to be in groups of about four and they had a whole program of how they’d come in and play, how they’d move around various “stations” in the hall and so on.  As you’d imagine the sounds were highly varied with virtually every instrumentation you’d imagine (though only a bit of electronics).  There was some bad actors (a particularly terrible bit from a professor on the piano springs to mind)  but in general there was so much going on that’d they couldn’t act as a spoiler.  I can’t deny that there was a couple of times where I had to resist the temptation to stand up and shout “This isn’t Christian Wolff” ala Morton Feldman at a Scratch Orchestra performance of this piece.  Toward the end of the piece there is a melodic section that is repeated a number of times. Given the amount of performers here and the length of the event this went on and on, coming first from one part of the room and later another part of the room. In the end there was just one group left, with a pianist, guitar and violin (IIRC) and they’d just play this melodic bit in various ways. Very charming.


Listen to the Scratch Orchestra perform Burdocks

After the show I checked out some of the pages of the score that’d had been scattered around and also found the set of directions for which group was supposed to be where at what time. I commented to Keith Rowe that the chaos had clearly been pretty well orchestrated. He quipped that back in the Scratch Orchestra days they never needed to coordinate their chaos.

Christian Wolff at NEC Day 3: Stephen Drury playing Sticks
Festival Director Stephen Drury playing Sticks

Continuing in the list of great pieces performed on this day the selection from the Prose Collection performed in the Christian Wolff Performance Space, was one of my all time favorites, Sticks. This is another one which I’ve played with the Seattle Improv Meeting, which you can enjoy a recording of while you read along:


Seattle Improv Meeting play Christian Wolff’s Sticks

Sticks

Make sounds with sticks of various kinds, one stick alone, several together, on other instruments, sustained as well as short. Don’t mutilate trees or shrubbery; don’t break anything other than the sticks; avoid outright fires unless they serve a practical purpose.

You can begin when you have not heard a sound from a stick for a while; two or three can begin together. You may end when your sticks or one of them are broken small enough that a handful of the pieces in your hands cupped over each other are not, if shaken and unamplified, audible beyond your immediate vicinity. Or hum continuously on a low note; having started proceed with other sounds simultaneously (but not necessarily continuously); when you can hum no longer, continue with other sounds, then stop. With several players either only one should do this or two or two pairs together (on different notes) and any number individually. (6)

You can also do without sticks but play the sounds and feelings you imagine a performance with sticks would have.

Christian Wolff at NEC Day 3: Sticks 3There were little stashes of sticks all over the place and the students, as well as festival director Stephen Drury, moved around between the stairwell and the upper area playing these sticks. The sticks were pretty often tapped or rubbed against each other and hitting other things, instruments or objects was quite common as well.  While pretty good theater musically I felt this was the least successful of the Prose Pieces that was played as part of the festival. Too dispersed and not enough focus on the actual sticks in my opinion. I think they would have been better off sitting in a circle like they did for Fits & Starts around a pile of sticks and really tried to work with the materials. This is basically how I’ve done it when I’ve performed it and I really loved the results (check out the above recording for a sample of this.  In this performance it was much more percussive due to the focus on playing other objects and did not bring out the sounds of sticks nearly as well as one can.  Still it was fun to watch and good to see it performed and as with all performances of experimental music, lessons were learned.

Following the dinner break it was back to the concert hall where, as with every night, there was a tape piece playing as I walked into the hall. Tonight’s was For Magnetic Tape (1952) which was the piece that Wolff did while Cage created Williams Mix and Earle Brown his Octet for 8 Speakers as part of the Project for Music for Magnetic Tape.  I wasn’t able to concentrate too much on the piece but it was a fairly typical 50s tape piece with sounds rushing in and out, short little tones and squeaks.  You can however give this a listen yourself as an mp3 is hosted on the Dartmouth site:


Christian Wolff’s For Magnetic Tape

The program began with Duo for Violins (1950). This was the first Christian Wolff composition, at least the first one he lists on his websites list of works.  It features that highly restricted material of his earliest pieces, constructed out of longer lines, overlapping, intersecting and contrasting. A  really nice piece and I enjoyed this performance of it a lot. This was followed by Violinist and Percussionist (1996)  another nice little piece that began with plucked strings on the violin while the percussionist mostly tapped  his drum head, than proceeded into somewhat languorous bowing as the percussion became more active.

Christian Wolff at NEC Day 3: Keith Rowe 2I’ve seen Keith Rowe solo on numerous occasions and while this one was of a piece with those others it was also rather unique. First off it was a bit shorter than normal at a bit less then fifteen minutes (he tends toward twenty-five or forty-five minute solos depending on the circumstance) but also there was the uniqueness of the room to consider. The room is a very important concept for Keith and it extends beyond the physical aspects of the room to contain the atmosphere, the audience and the general ambiance. All of these in this case are the conservatory and its most formal and impressive hall.  Keith’s performance began quite spiky with objects on the strings, short little attacks and quick events. Shortly thereafter he brought in the radio and other electronics: the  telephone pickup on his netbook and bluetooth interference from a mouse. The performance was compressed, but it had the contours of a Keith solo and it was a bit more harsh than I anticipated, which I think was a little bit of disruption to the formal atmosphere, bringing a bit of the experimentalist tradition to the concert hall. It was a hit among the (mostly) students in the audience and I can’t help but thinking that some few there would throw of the rigidity of the conservatory after this week.

After an intermission was the a large ensemble piece, The Exception and the Rule (2010) performed by the Callithumpian Consort under the direction of Stephen Drury. The piece they played was the musical portions of a a Bertolt Brecht play, that had been composed by Christian Wolff for the ensemble. This was for a fairly large ensemble with male and female vocalists singing the Brecht songs. This piece was performed more completely the next night so I’ll simply say that it was great musically and it really sounded good in this hall.  Rounding out the night was a performance of Edges, which is probably my favorite Wolff score (and one of the most challenging I’ve played) with Keith and Christian along with half a dozen students.

Christian Wolff at NEC Day 3: Edges

One of the great treats of the year that I spent in London was to play with AMM. I still play whenever I can with them. That free improvisation just blew me away. I just loved that. It’s not something I can imagine doing exclusively by any means, but the experience is like no other. I made one piece called Edges which was basically for that kind of a situation. That’s the nearest I’ve come to making a really improvisational piece, where you can’t do it unless you know how to improvise. There is a score, there’s visual material, but the score is just these bits of information scattered over a page which might just indicate very loud or play dirty or play in the middle, that kind of rather generic indication. But the instructions are that you don’t necessarily play the notations but you play around them or in relationship to them. In other words”””very loud”””that’s the image. There you have your Platonic idea, but you circle it, and you have a conversation with “very loud” which might include playing it very softly or thinking about dynamics but in relation to that. It’s okay occasionally to play very loud, but that’s not the primary point of realizing that notation. (7)

They ensemble was widely spaced out on the stage with Christian (on piano) and Keith roughly centered.  They played in the darkness with only the lights on their music stands casting any light. The student ensemble included trumpet,  violin, clarinet, double bass and baritone horn. There was a lot of space and the sounds were mostly short events coming from the students. They were for the most part a bit tentative but Keith  brought in a bit more grit, growl and dynamics though his actions were quite spaced out. Christian also worked in a wider dynamic range playing inside and out of the piano with more compact but still fairly spaced out events. A number of times he responded to the score with big crashes on the piano, after which some of the students seemed to loosen up. I thought they all seemed to play to the score except for the baritone player who played a bit too much but thankfully  never grandstanding and or overly dramatic. Pretty good overall especially considering that they didn’t have a lot of time to practice. In my experience with this piece it took several attempts to begin to really find a way into it and I think much more practice to really become proficient at it.


Listen to Gentle Fire perform Christian Wolff’s Edges

March 18th 2010
Christian Wolff festival day 4
Gardner Gallery Boston MA

So the final night of the week of Christian Wolff in Boston was quite a different affair. It was the aforementioned Callithumpian Consort and they were performing four pieces from a variety of twentieth century composers. The starkest difference though was that it wasn’t at NEC but was at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Gallery a few blocks away from the school.  This museum was the mansion of a Boston socialite and art collector and has a fixed collection hung salon style.  The art, primarily Italian Renaissance art, is uniformly uninteresting to myself and the museum is incredibly uptight. But in order to expand their patronage they do a number of events trying to appeak to a younger crowd. So on the night of this performance there was in the first floor courtyard a Gardner After Hours event which featured a DJ, a bar and younger yuppie types engaged in socializing and an art based scavenger hunt. At the same time as they’d try to appeal to this crowd the uptight museum staff would constantly ostracize them in various ways, constantly subverting the “fun”.  In parallel with the After Hours program was the musical performance  that I’d come to see, which was part of their Avant Gardner series in an upper tapestry room, so occasionally the sounds of the “party” would drift up during the quieter parts of the show.

The Callithumpian Consort was founded by Stephen Drury in the mid-90s and, as they put it on their website,  “is dedicated to the proposition that music is an experience.” They seem to play quite often as part of the Avant Gardner series and bringing more mainstream modern composition into the public sphere seems to be their thing.  For tonight’s program they played four pieces including the “world premier” of Christian Wolff’s The Exception and the Rule (2010).

The first was 26 Simultaneous Mosaics by Henry Cowell.  I’d seen this piece performed in Seattle as part of the Drums Along the Pacific concert series which had also featured Stephen Drury on piano. This is what I wrote about it for that performance:

The next piece, 26 Simultaneous Mosaics, from 1963 is indeterminate in form, making one wonder if the bi-directional influence between Cage and Cowell continued beyond percussion (Cowell also composed for Cage style prepared piano) though an earlier Cowell piece also allowed for a changeable structure at the group level instead of this pieces more variable indeterminacy at the  individual level. This piece for piano, percussion, violin, “˜cello and clarinet made up of  the aforementioned 26 parts which the instrumentalists can play in the order of their choosing thus causing each performance to be unique. In this realization the piece was spacious and meandering with the various mosaics taking on many different characteristics.  A nice piece with hints of romanticism here and there.

This pretty much held for this performance though it opened with a big wild run from the piano which had also occurred in Seattle though I hadn’t noted it. I thought this performance wasn’t quite as strong in the other parts, not as wild. Not bad though, but this would prove to be par for the course with the Callithumpian Consort – almost always a bit staid (except for Drury).  This piece was followed by Trio for Violin, Violoncello and Piano by Charles Ives. I’ve stated earlier in these reports that I am not much of a fan of Ives and am far from knowledgeable enough to intelligently comment on his music. So in brief I felt that the first movement was pretty great, easily the most appealing Ives I’ve heard and I was really hoping this would finally be a composition of his I liked. But then came the second movement which spoiled it all. It was typical Ives Americana but particularly bombastic even for him.  It was a “scherzo” that was a medley of popular songs of the day and it was like a bad string trio performance of Souza marches. Soul crushing.

The centerpiece of the evening was Christian Wolff piece which, while still an edited down version of the whole piece, featured actors and narration between the songs. This filled in the story which was pretty typical Brecht (i.e.  it rather belabored it’s point)  which was about a capitalist trying to cross a desert for a business opportunity during which he abuses and eventually kills his porter. The piece culminates in a trial in which the judge rules for the merchant as he had the right to self defense even if the threat was imaginary. The music of course is the most interesting part, from the program notes:

The music for The Exception and the Rule is cored for a mixed ensemble of low, dark-sounding instruments (clarinet, trombone, viola, bass), and percussion, and includes both specifically notated music as well as aleatoric sections. The singers are asked to prioritize clarity of diction and to sing straight ahead, and to think of folk or early music singing styles. There are no dynamics in the score, suggesting a mezzo, flat sound. (9)

I enjoyed the music for this quite a bit and while I tend to not be too much into Lieder type singing pieces I thought this all worked well. The lack of inflection on the singing helped a lot for me. Ultimately I think I preferred the previous nights version as musically it sounded better in the hall and the play parts seem a bit superfluous.

So ends
The story of a journey
You have heard and you have seen.
You saw what is usual, what happens time and again.
But we ask of you:
What is not strange
Find it disturbing,
Strange making what is customary,
Find it inexplicable,
Find it inexplicable.
What is usual should astonish you
What is the rule recognize it as an abuse
And where you have recognized abuse
Abuse
Create a remedy
Do something about it!
Create a remedy
Do something about it!(10)

The final piece was Page 45 from Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise performed by the Consort along with Keith Rowe.  This was easily the biggest disappointment of the entire week of music; they only played for about 8 minutes which is pretty short even for just one page. They didn’t have Keith run a workshop on performing the piece, the Callithumpian Consort apparently has been working on the piece for some time, supposedly they have even recorded the whole score at length. But their interpretation, at least of this page, was terrible bringing to mind all that Cardew had complained about classical performers attempts at this piece. They played the whole thing at a very quiet dynamic with near continuous playing. This really didn’t fit the material which was a page with several isolated events. Additionally they were far too inclined toward unison playing, too worried about playing together, which really isn’t an option with a group playing the score.  Keith of course kept to the score and provided some dynamic contrast but he played to the room and thus didn’t dramatically jump out.  It seems strange to me to have Keith there and not really use him, he is by far the most expert person playing Treatise today and you’d think they’d want to take advantage of it.

After the concert we all headed down to the gallery bar, which the uptight staff of course shut down before the concert goers could get a drink (including the musicians whom they gave drink tickets to). This didn’t go over too well, but we all went to this restaurant closer to NEC and had a final beer.  While this last night was a bit of an outlier, in the main this was a fantastic week and it was an incredible opportunity to get to see so much of Wolff’s music performed. I had a great time and it was an honor and a pleasure to be able to meet Christian Wolff and Stephen Drury. As always I had many great conversations with Keith whom it was great to see again. My thanks to all involved for the terrific program.

See all of my pictures from this festival in my Christian Wolff at NEC flickr group.

References
1) Christian Wolff, Cues: Writings & Conversations Edition MusikTexte, Köln 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) Callithumpian Consort website
9) Callithumpian Consort at the Gardner museum program notes
10) Bertolt Brecht, Poems 1913-1956