Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Wolff piano II

During the 1960s, Christian Wolff continued writing indeterminate scores along the lines he started with the Duos for Pianist and For Pianist. A 1967 residence in London led him to the idiosyncratic improvisation of AMM, for whom he wrote Edges, but the sixties also saw the other classic indeterminate pieces For 1, 2 or 3 People, For 5 or 10 players and In between pieces, all for unspecified instrumentation and focussing more on the interaction between the performers rather than the specifics of pitch and rhythm. This period culminated in an evocative series of prose pieces, such as Sticks:
Make sounds with sticks of various kinds.... 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 also do without sticks but play the sounds and feelings you imagine a performance with sticks would have.
At the end of the sixties, he began what he now considers a transitional phase, slightly influenced by Terry Riley, Philip Glass and Steve Reich, retaining open instrumentation but with more periodic rhythms and specified pitch sequences. In this style he composed four pieces named after AMM pianist John Tilbury and Snowdrop "for harpsichord [and (or) possibly other instrument(s)]." Three of the Tilbury pieces and Snowdrop appeared on another album of Wolff piano music released last year, by pianist Sabine Liebner on the Neos label. They prefigure a growing interest in melody and heterophony which has become increasingly more important in Wolff's music.

Like his earlier piano works, which I wrote about here, the Tilbury pieces (named Tilbury 1 through Tilbury 4) use structural principles based on the planetary system that are virtually undetectable by the listener. What we hear is a gently meandering melody line, although as Wolff specifies in the instructions to Tilbury 1, "not tenderly." Wolff allows overlays and transpositions, although Liebner doesn't permit herself this luxury. Each Tilbury piece has its own character based on their pitch sets. Liebner doesn't include Tilbury 4 because it is a set of instructions for multiple players (at least two).

Snowdrop is a companion to the Tilbury pieces, composed around the same time, but composed of overlapping scale fragments that can be played in a myriad of combinations and interpretations. It most closely recalls the minimalist influences, as the melody lines intertwine, fade in and out of silence, as if there was a continuous music that only occasionally becomes audible. Considerably longer than the Tilbury pieces, it is named for the eastern forest's first spring wildflower. Snowdrops form a carpet of small white flowers, and their tiny bulbs are picked up in the hooves of passing deer and spread through the woods. As far as I can tell, Wolff has never addressed the relation of the title to the music, and his only other plant title is his very next composition, Burdocks. But I hear the islands of scalar fragments like patches of flowers amidst the tranquillity of the winter woods, separated by the silence of last autumn's dead leaves.

Between these minimal and generally subdued works, Liebner intersperses some of Wolff's most recent solo piano work, fifteen selections from an incomplete and unpublished collection of Keyboard Miscellany begun in 1998, and a six-minute piece from 2006 entitled simply A Piano Piece. The Keyboard Miscellany range in length from very short (No. 9 is seven two-note chords in nine seconds) to ten minutes (the gorgeous Variations on Morton Feldman's Piano Piece 1952). The booklet includes the complete score for one of the shorter miscellany, which suggests that all of them are more completely composed than the Tilbury pieces and his earlier works in general. Their texture is generally a single melodic line, evenly spaced rhythmically, with the pieces unfolding in gestures separated by long pauses. Sometimes the melodic lines have an accompaniment line. Wolff's work list says that the miscellany is for piano or melodica, which explain the origins of the single line and restricted pitch range.

My welcoming of new recordings of indeterminate works from my last review of Wolff's piano pieces is reiterated here. This is not the first recording of either Snowdrop or the Tilbury pieces, which have also been recorded in chamber versions — there's a nice set on Mode for trombone, violin and piano. Even more important than the indeterminacy, these pieces demonstrate Wolff's democratization of musical performance. Most of this material is not technically challenging, and one of Wolff's ongoing interests is that his pieces might encourage listeners to become performers — especially true for the prose pieces, but compared to his piano pieces from the 1950s (which were written for virtuoso musicians David Tudor and Frederic Rzewski), the Tilbury and later pieces provide a performance access into Wolff's musical world. Many composers seek to dazzle the audience with flare and pyrotechnics, an attitude helped by conservatory virtuosi who want to impress the audience with their skill, but Wolff's music is still directed at the performer here, and it's okay if the performer can't sightread the pillars of postwar complexity such as Boulez' Deuxième Sonate or Stockhausen's Klavierstück X. These little gems require sensitivity and insight, and a willingness to listen openly, finding the music within.

Photograph of snowdrops by Carol Deupree. Score excerpt from Snowdrop, published by Edition Peters.

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