Christian Wolff, born 1934, was the the son of a literary publisher, Kurt Wolff. Sometime in the early 40s, the elder Wolff published an English translation of the I Ching, or Book of Changes, and gifted a copy to composer John Cage. The younger Wolff would later study I Ching-inspired indeterminacy and other liberation techniques of composition alongside Cage and others of the 1950s New York School: Morton Feldman and Earle Brown, the pianist David Tudor, and the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham.
A new collection of Wolff’s work, 8 Duos (New World Records), comprises eight mature works for percussion duet. The earliest, “For Morty”, was composed in 1987, and the latest, “For a Medley”, in 2012. On each piece, the percussionist is Robyn Schulkowsky, who has long been a champion of twentieth and twenty-first century composers, notably Stockhausen, Xenakis and Gubaidulina, although I first came to her work via Hastening westward (1995) a compositional and improvisational collaboration with trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær, released on the ECM label. Schulkowsky’s openness to improvisation makes her an ideal interpreter of Wolff’s music.
Wolff was largely self-taught as a composer (academically, he is a classicist). He, too, has embraced improvisation, innovating notations which facilitate it. The overt political radicalism of his middle period is refined in works such as these, which permit their interpreters varying degrees of gestural and expressive freedom. Cunningham’s influence also tells in their characteristic fluency. Further, Wolff has played fully improvised music, with artists including Christian Marclay and Steve Lacy, and was at one time a member of the seminal improvisational ensemble AMM.
Schulkowsky’s partners for Wolff’s 8 Duos are composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski; violist Kim Kashkashian; percussionist Joey Baron; trumpeter Reinhold Friedrich; cellist Rohan de Saram; and the composer in person.
Each of the two CDs in this set has a distinctive character. Of the works on disc one, Rzewski, a close associate of Wolff’s since the 60s, plays on both “For Morty”, Wolff’s 1987 dedication to Morton Feldman, and “Rosas” (1990), a double tribute to Rosas Luxemburg and Parks. Both pieces are bracingly lucent. Wolff’s freedoms permit his interpreters to inhabit his works, and their immersion results in music expressed, with fulsome precision, in tonalities achieved with concise, incisive gestures. Kashkashian, in particular, is eloquently aphoristic. Friedrich, on “Pulse”, is earthier, even ardent.
Schulkowsky is remarkably responsive, mastering the dynamics of each performance, and subtly guiding her partners’ choices re. pitch and amplitude.
The music on disc two—”One Coat of Paint” (2004), on which Schulkowsky is partnered by cellist Rohan de Saram; and “Duo 7” (2007), on which Wolff accompanies Schulkowsky on Melodica—is comparatively both more economical and enigmatic. The former, at 26:57, is substantially the longest, most variegated and most structurally detailed piece here. By contrast, the latter is described by Wolff, in a conversation related in the booklet, as “a funny little piece”; a nice reminder of the lightness and humour with which he imbues his work, and leavens its seriousness of intent.
On 8 Duos‘ most nervy piece, “For A Medley” (2012), New Yorker Joey Baron is Schulkowsky’s percussion partner, and he is also one of the two drummers who accompany her on her own recording, Armadillo (New World Records).
Just as Baron is probably still best known for his work with the John Zorn groups Naked City, Masdada, and Electric Masada, his counterpart on Armadillo, drummer Fredy Studer is best known as a founder member of another eclectic, electric jazz/free music ensemble, OM.
The Schulkowsky / Baron / Studer trio interprets Schulkowsky’s original suite with disciplined rhythm-keeping and responsive dynamism. Where Wolff’s work is primarily gestural, the four movements of Armadillo are riverine, mirroring the sonic continuities and rhythmic patterning of minimalism (Reich, Glass), but with more structural flexibility and heightened expressivity.
“Part I” lasts 42:33, the remaining three parts just over five minutes apiece. In place of the dancing light of minimalism, the tectonic bass rumble and stratified rhythmic variations of “Part I” mesh ever more closely; and “Part II” is yet more taut and suspenseful, a crisp rhythmic patter of tom-toms filled out by deeper resonances.
The two final movements are more varied. “Part III” is patterned with softly-struck gongs and bright metallic shimmers of rippled and circle-scraped cymbals; “Part IV” a light, locomotive snare drums shuffle punctuated by bass reverberations and subtler, wire-brushed sounds and sticks clicks, ending in a final, unexpected metallic whorl.
Two albums of compositions which are open to interpretation, inspiring performances of luminous beauty.
Morton Feldman – Crippled Symmetry: at June in Buffalo