The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2014

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APR 2014 Issue

Christian Wolff @ 80

Two nights at the end of March served both to celebrate the 80th birthday of the composer Christian Wolff and to remind that connections to the New York School of composers—those responsible for some of the most radical and influential American music of the 20th century—are still very much with us.

Wolff was the youngest of the composers that made up the small but influential group (20 years younger than John Cage and eight younger than Earle Brown and Morton Feldman) and is still active today—quite active, in fact, as his agile presence in flannel shirt and winter vest proved during the Christian Wolff @ 80: Ostrava Days in New York festival, March 26 and 27. The festival's subtitle gave nod to the Czech-born associate of Wolff and the New York School: Petr Kotik, the conductor of the Brooklyn-based S.E.M. Ensemble and organizer of the festival, has had a long association with Wolff, as he did with Cage and Feldman during their lives as well. Kotik is also founder of the Ostrava Days Institute and Festival in the Czech Republic, and Wolff @ 80 served in part to bring a bit of that festival back to New York, the city he has called home since 1983. Musicians and composers at the festival included past students of the Ostrava Institute, and European musicians who perform in the biennial festival. A number of the pieces presented were also played during the 2013 Ostrava Days festival. The New York City festivities even received funding from the City of Ostrava and its mayor Petr Kajnar, as well as the Moravian-Silesian region, Miroslav Novák county executive, and Ostrava staff made the trip to work the New York events.

Christian Wolff at the Piano. Photo by Aslan Chalom.

While the word “festival” has become popular in arts curation, it's not often that a schedule of less than three days can earn that banner. Not without some long hours, anyway, which is what Kotik built into Wolff @ 80—eight hours over two nights, and that with a couple pieces cut from the second night’s program.  The first night began at Roulette, with Kotik's There is Singularly Nothing, four instrumentalists (flute, trumpet, and paired trombones) already playing their sparse, gradually interlocking parts as if they were simply practicing, while New Yorkers, Czechs, and other guests in the audience greeted each other, until—promptly at 8—baritone Jeffrey Gavett stepped to the front of the stage and began reciting—singing, but with the feel of a recitation—the Gertrude Stein text Kotik set to music in 1973.

This piece is a cousin to Kotik’s masterful Many Many Women (1976 – 1978), which would be performed in drastically truncated form the following night. Both compositions take Stein’s prose as the librettos, and are written for unspecified pairs of instruments and singers playing specific parts in sequence, but without strict duration. Kotik played the solo flute, with George Lewis on trombone. More to the point, both pieces are wonderful adaptations of Stein's hypnotic texts. Stein and Kotik seem made for each other. Different degrees of focus can be applied to each phrase for different results.

Many, Many Women was given a brief 20 minutes and indeed wasn’t just abbreviated but accelerated, the instruments (two flutes, two trumpets, and two trombones) beginning together, voices entering almost immediately. Of course, scheduling concerns were a reality—and quick, intense focus is a different but not a lesser experience than slow, passive absorption—but it was still a shame. In such a short time the music had barely begun when it reached a climax in minutes, one that ordinarily takes a couple of hours to hit. At a duration of four hours or more, time disappears. If there is any sense of wariness, it is in the first hour. After that, the piece just keeps unrolling, and listening is simply what the audience does. Kotik's Nine + 1 (2013), with heavily played piano and percussion, softer wind and strings, and measured, insistent, and rapid baroque phrases (a nod perhaps to his beloved George Philipp Telemann), was another of the 20 pieces played over the two, long, nights.

But if the festival had two prongs, Wolff was still the honoree. His For Six or Seven Players (Music for Merce Cunningham) from 1959, with Joseph Kubera on piano, made Kotik's Singularly Nothing seem positively pointed. Kotik conducted as if he were Freder operating the clock in Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Phrases for individual instruments seemed to be framed within quarter-minute brackets with plenty of space left for silence. It wasn’t silence that filled the room, however: as with Feldman's expansive works, anticipation ran like electrical current through the room. After 10 minutes, Kotik took up his flute and piccolo, leaving the invisible clock to run on its own.

37 Haiku (2005) for oboe, horn, viola, cello, and baritone voice, especially, showed Wolff's penchant for broken lines. A quartet of instruments set the pace for each of the short stanzas baritone Thomas Buckner sang (with a few vocalized by the musicians, sometimes divided among them, word-by-word), which produced a shift in tone every couple of minutes. Although fragmented, Wolff’s lines are gentle and spacious, with only the occasional interruption (e.g. a nearly rude interjection from the French horn followed immediately by a fairly baroque single line, before the instrument returned to the conversation).

The remarkable String Noise—Conrad Harris and Pauline Kim Harris—performed Wolff’s Violin Duo for Petr, composed for Kotik in 2011. The husband/wife duo play immaculately well together—it's hard to imagine the piece receiving a better reading. And the equally stellar Belgian pianist Daan Vandewalle played Small Preludes (2008 – 09), a lengthy submersion into Wolff's structuralism, one of the longer sets of the two nights, and, in fact, one of the most satisfying. His exquisite touch and timing were prominent in these graceful pieces. But as wonderful as it was listening to Vandewalle, hearing Wolff play his own small etudes felt deeply intimate.

Keyboard Miscellany (listed in the program as Piano Miscellany) (1998) was introduced by Wolff as “a selection of small pieces, mostly very personal pieces, sort of a scrapbook.” The first one, another dedication to Merce Cunningham, was played in duet with Chris Nappi on vibraphone. After that, Wolff was on his own, and it was as if full narratives came together, long lines of thought that might have been exploded onto an ensemble as in the larger works. Like a scrapbook, he flipped through the single-page scores thoughtfully, almost (it seemed) sentimentally. It wasn't clear, once Nappi had left the stage, when one piece began and the next ended—Wolff just turned individual sheets of paper and read through them, not like he was sharing the scrapbook but like he was examining it on his own. It seemed odd at first not to have individual pieces listed in the program or announced from the stage, but it soon didn't matter. It was light, sweet, pensive and lovely.

The second night closed with the premiere of a work written for the occasion, Wolff deciding it was late enough and pulling the plug on his Nocturnes. Trio VI for flute and two percussionists seemed to fall between the other works heard, the linear thoughts of the solo piano pieces and the scattered, broken, and interlocking phrases of the ensemble pieces. The instruments were often on top of each other, playing both the same lines and variations, with moments of softly dissonant flourishes.

The festival was filled out with an array of composers familiar from the Ostrava Days bills. The first night included Conrad Harris playing Iannis Xenakis's Mikka (1971) and Mikka “S” (1975), a slippery pair of solos with changes in dynamics so abrupt one would be excused for thinking Harris was using an electronic delay. He played it, unsurprisingly, brilliantly—this is a musician who has mastered Cage's daunting Freeman Etudes—the two brief solos were a joy to hear. Martin Smoka's Autumn Thoughts (1998/2011) was played by the Ostravská Banda, the European contingent of Kotik's dual musical citizenship, and it was wonderfully percussive, even rocking. The Banda also played Petr Cigler's Über das farbige Licht der Doppelsterne (2012), a more romantic, almost Brahmsian piece, the phrases overlapping while still sounding sequential. It started and stopped with a balanced counter-valence, growing in complexity despite the abrupt breaks.

A string trio and percussionist from the S.E.M. Ensemble played a piece by the Iranian composer Idin Samimi Mofakham, a student at last year's Ostrava Institute. Mirage (2012) combined beautiful string lines with percussion written for a large container of water; the strings slid in and out of dissonant harmonies for extended periods before, rather surprisingly, a gong was submerged in the tank of water and momentum grew. György Ligeti's Trio for Violin, Horn, and Piano (1982)—played by the OB-Trio (Vandewalle, Harris, and Daniel Costello on horn)—closed the first night, sounding resplendent after a long night of challenging listening. While Cigler may have referenced the romantics, Ligeti used beauty within abstraction like no one else.

The second night—at the Bohemian National Hall on the Upper East Side—included two pieces by Alex Mincek (from the wonderful Wet Ink Ensemble and a former student of the Institute). His Subito No. 2 (2013), played by the Banda, toyed with meter in sustained tones and unison pizzicato. Later Mincek took up his saxophone for a duo with percussion, Nucleus (2007), that sounded electronic: tongue flicks to the reed and an inexplicable cymbal manipulation began the piece and, as they began to play more fully the music led into a succession of loops—organic but still sounding electronic. Philip Glass made a rare and emphatically received appearance, playing the ninth and tenth of his solo piano Études. And a longtime Glass collaborator, saxophonist Jon Gibson, played with a trio (Kubera and Nappi on piano and percussion) that served to remind again of the origins of New York's new music. The Banda also played Bernhard Lang's Monadologie XVII (2011), which bore some resemblance to the previous night’s Cigler in its staggered and overlapping phrases, but with a more claustrophobic development and a surprising electric keyboard played by Kubera at the piano.

It was a lot to load onto a birthday party, even the 80th of someone as key to the living tradition of American composition as Wolff. But with Kotik's finesse as a programmer, the two nights did more. They underscored a continuum, one not as prominent as it once was, but in excellent health nonetheless.


Kurt Gottschalk

KURT GOTTSCHALK writes fiction and about music for various publications, hosts the Miniature Minotaurs show on WFMU, and struggles with a variety of stringed instruments.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2014

All Issues