Tuesday, February 05, 2008
Went to hear Christian Wolff perform some of his music last evening at the Merce Cunningham Dance Company space. To the best of my recollection, I'd never heard his work performed live, having only experienced it via the seven or eight discs I've picked up. Not that those recordings are necessarily representative or that they're not subject to the vagaries of the non-Wolff performers, but I've generally found the music tough sledding. To my ears, there's a tinge of academicism present (maybe too many Mode recordings in the bunch!) which doesn't help me steer through the essential knottiness of the compositions. But, of course, that may well be just me.
So I was prepared for a night of difficult listening and got it, though not in the sense I expected.
There was a quintet of musicians on hand: Wolff (piano, melodica, percussion), Robert Black (bass, percussion), Timothy Fain (violin), Larry Polansky (electric guitar, electric mandolin, percussion) and Robyn Schulkowsky (percussion). They performed six works, three from the mid-70s (Exercises 1, 10 & 18), one from 1991 (Jasper) and two premieres of new pieces (Grete & Duo 7).
I guess there were two main surprises. One was how relatively conservative much of the music struck me, in a kind of post-Neo Romantic vein. Second, was the absolute predominance of "notes" as opposed to "sounds". Not just that it was virtually all written as near as I could tell, but there was--to put it perhaps too vaguely--more of an interest in "sonic colors" than the sounds themselves. This plus what I felt was (on the part of several of the musicians) an overly studied way of phrasing caused several of the works to pall a bit. Since this wasn't an working repertoire group but rather an ensemble hand-picked by Wolff, I have to assume they were rendering his music as he wished and maybe I'll come to see the wisdom in his choices, but for now, I don't quite get it.
Things were too clean, in a word. My exposure to Larry Polansky's own work has left me feeling similarly; I just find his guitar sound entirely too smooth and characterless. What I wouldn't have given for a certain Nantes-based guitarist to be occupying that chair, improvising within the complex structures Wolff created. I had similar qualms with the violinist and, especially, the percussionist. The cadences fell on the wrong side of the delicate/prissy line, sounding too much like every other contemporary piece you've heard since 1960.
This is not by any means to say that there weren't beautiful moments. The Exercises especially created a fine sense of space and the give and take between instrumentalists was playful and enjoyable. #18 used a good deal of small percussion, Wolff manipulating stones, small patterns emerging that bore a whiff of Reich, a lovely 6-note piano melody coming and going; a delightful piece all around. The closing Exercise as well, with Polansky thankfully switching to mandolin, occupied similar ground, though more "expressive" in a emotional sense.
That was the rub in some of the other works--they seemed to uncertainly balance between pure melodicism and academic restraint. On "Jasper", a duo for violin and bass, Fain seemed just about to launch into virtuoso paroxysms; I didn't want him to, but on the other hand, I felt, "If you're going to do it, do it!" Though perhaps that was Wolff's point, dunno. The episodic nature of many of the pieces left a certain amount of dissatisfaction, though having just re-read Calvino's "If on a winter's night a traveler", I probably should have been listening with that in mind, with that sort of playing with the listener's expectations. I did want to hear far more grit, however, more elaboration on sound.
Big crowd there, filling the house. Props to Joey Baron for showing up. I had a good time sitting next to David Behrman and Robert Ashley, listening in. Merce Cunningham himself was in attendance, in a wheelchair, looking frail but attentive and appreciative. And my friend Julie, who I don't see nearly enough, made a surprise showing.
I was able to speak a little with Wolff after the show and hope to do so more, at greater length, re: AMM & Keith.
Jon Mueller/Asmus Tietchens -Acht Stuecke (Auf Abwegen)
Jon Mueller/Jeph Jerman - Nodes and Anti-Nodes (Crouton)