Monday, March 29, 2010

Open Space Music Festival 2010 with Christian Wolff

Out here in lovely Colorado we just ended our second annual Open Space Music Festival, featuring Stephen Drury, Michael Hicks, the Callithumpian Consort and composer Christian Wolff. As a graduate student for the jazz program and the composition program here at the University of Northern Colorado I have been kept busy helping get everything organized for the COBRA ENSEMBLE's performance of EDGES with the composer Christian Wolff, as well as providing rides for the guest artists for the past several days. We luckily got a lot of publicity for the festival and I think all and all everything went rather well. Here's some links with the local papers here, here, and here.

The festival started with Thursday Masterclasses with both Stephen Drury and Christian Wolff. They were at the same time, and I was busy driving folks around, so I caught the majority of Christian Wolff's masterclass. He started off by playing an early piece of his for only three instruments in which he described not using any melodies/counterpoint/accompaniment, just simply sounds with structure. It had a nice and static sound to it, while being in constant motion, and I hope I can find a recording and/or score to the work. Wolff was friends with John Cage, and he talked about how Cage would give him exercises to work on, like for instance a Webern piece for orchestra (also blanking on which piece) in which it was written in a double canon, and serialized, but you kept hearing the sound of the same 13 note chord, even though there was this inherent structure to the work that kept moving around. So it was an elaborate system that made up the sound of a very repetitive static harmony. Wolff's own music was influenced by this static pitch sound. He mentioned Morton Feldman's early graph scores as being the first of its kind in opening up the possibilities for the performers. Christian Wolff talked about then how some of his early vocal music went up and down in pitch, but in an unspecified/open way.

In Christian Wolff's masterclass he went on to talk about the influence of pianist David Tudor on the scene, who loved playing new music, and anything that was incredibly difficult to pull off, which was a boon to the scene of composers. Wolff was also friends with Frederic Rzewski, another pianist and the two of them worked out a duo piece for two pianos using "Varied time relationships." He described this as things between a sixteenth of a second and 30 seconds in which the pianist had to play specific things, but given specific time in order to do it. This concept sounds VERY similar to some things I have heard in Zorn's work. This concept led to one person's sound relying on another person's sound, like a hocket, but with freer durations. Wolff was then talking about the rhythmic sound this gets, that he can't figure out how to acheive without this kind of technique. The unmeasured quality of it brings an "off-ness" to the sound. He said he then further complicated this with "cues," when a note goes on until another note is played by someone else.

Christian Wolff went on to go back to the "open-ness" of certain compositions, and how as the composer you have to ask yourself, "What is the worst that can happen" and then revise or scrap the piece if the worst thing is something you couldn't deal with. There is always a gap in the score and the actual music, and the process of transfer is built in, which is something always to keep in mind. The inherent improvisation of reading a music score and performing it is what gives the music its life!

Wolff then went on to talk about three composers that were important to him. Namely Webern, who would write with sound aspect and the mental aspect both moving in opposite directions, like the sound being static, but the process being elaborate. Erik Satie is another composer mentioned, that Wolff said John Cage loved. Satie's music was very matter of fact, and yet ambiguous as to what exactly it was doing. Satie's music also had an element of popular music, and was willing to reference the vernacular much like Charles Ives, the third composer that he was very influenced by. Ives, Wolff said, used hymns and pop tunes, in a big mess of complexity, which is specifically interesting because Wolff's early pieces were more about reduction and simplicity.

The last part of Christian Wolff's lecture went on to talk about larger ensemble works. He said that his more open scores worked for up to a max of about 10 people (our performance of Edges was 12-13 people), but then was faced with the question of what to about a full orchestra. So his first orchestral piece was a concerto for a percussionist, since he knew that at least the percussionist would practice their part. Petr Kotik was an early help in trying to make sure that Wolff's music was heard among other new music composers. After this, Kotik was working with a Czech orchestra, and somehow got them to put on Stockhausen's Gruppen, for mulitple orchestras. Kotik approached Wolff about writing a piece for three orchestras for the same concert, and so Wolff's second attempt at orchestral writing involved three of them at once. He said it was mostly traditionally notated with some open sections here and there, but was performed well.

After the masterclass on thursday there was a concert with the Callithumpian Consort performing Jonathan Harvey's Flight Elegy, Wolff's Berliner Exercises, as well as Wolff's musical setting of Bertolt Brecht's "Exception and the Rule." All of the concert featured the Callithumpian Consort conducted by Stephen Drury. The Flight Elegy was a duo for piano and violin remniscent of George Crumb with it's microtonal melodic material on the violin, and the lush inside of the piano sounds. The Berliner Exercises was fun and pointillistic...this being a simplistic view of the piece, but I am just to remember by initial reaction to hearing it. I wish I would've been around to hear the translation of some of the German text used in the exercies. I happened upon the score, and will spend some time later hopefully studying it. The last piece was with the Callithumpian's and the UNC Theatre department, which I thought was great, and if anything, my only comment would be that I would have loved to hear even more music. Great play, great writing, and was well recieved. On a personal note I thought that it was a pretty serious play, and yet there was a lot of seemingly contrived laughter from audience members that were obviously friends with the theatre kids, that I found a bit detracting, but what can you expect? Overall it was a really great concert, and real pleasure to hear an ensemble like the Callithumpian Consort.

Friday was my day! That morning was a rehearsal with the COBRA ENSEMBLE and Christian Wolff in which he rehearsed us on EDGES. Immediately he liked what we were doing and made a point of talking about the kind of opposite ideas, in which we were supposed to listen, but not necessarily react to one another. It was helpful to hear him say that the score was more of what not to play, than what to play, as if we had the negative of a picture, and were trying to realize the picture. So take the symbols given, play their total opposites, and then play the varying degrees of the opposite of the symbol at hand, and the degrees going towards or away from that. I recorded the masterclass and performance, and were even joined by our professor Paul Elwood on banjo. Christian Wolff was offered a keyboard, but he thought two keyboards would be too much, so he sang some, played some minimal percussion and harmonica. Personally I think the rehearsal went better than the performance itself, but it was still a great experience and I think everyone learned a lot. The hardest part was having a few people miss the morning rehearsal, and then play the piece for 45 minutes or longer (at the performance), without hearing how to do it straight from Christian Wolff's mouth. Still, all in all a good performance!

Michael Hicks gave a lecture and a concert of folk music on friday, in which I missed the concert but caught the lecture. He was basically talking about how different record companies, Columbia in particular, marketed avant garde music to rock audiences, which was funny and enlightening. It also cost me some money, as I then had to search out some of the LPs for my own sake! Here's some of my notes typed up from the lecture (he gave out a great handout as well). There was a record "Susan" by a pop group called the Buckinghams that had a tune where it was interupted by Ives and Stockhausen music layered on top of one another, completely out of nowhere. The composer David Behrman was a big help to new music for columbia records, as we was added as an engineer, but then helped his boss, John McClure get out to various lofts and agree to record people like La Monte Young and Terry Riley. Look up records with "Music of our time" monikers as well as the album "A Guide to the Electronic Music Revolution." Also I have that Earl Brown used to run the Mainstream label, which makes sense because that's one of the best early new music labels. That's primarily it for my Michael Hicks lecture notes.

And that concludes my post on the Open Space Festival at UNC this year. I had a great time, it was good hanging out with Drury, all the members of the Callithumpian Consort and Christian Wolff. I may update this with one more post going into specifics about the masterclass with Christian Wolff and transcribing what he said from my recording, but other than that that wraps it up. Also, for the first time ever, I am dedicated an entire blog post soon to a CD that a group sent me in the mail, and will take some more time listening to it and getting it in my ear, and then typing up a lengthy review of it, and why you should all check it out!

Thanks, and I hope you have enjoyed!

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