This is the final post in a series featuring the program notes for Scott Wollschleger's debut album, Soft Aberration out next week on New Focus Recordings!
“I think there’s a kind of emptied quality to the string quartet, and those pieces I wrote at that time.” Scott trails off slightly, then continues, “I think the white noise signified that sort of complete emptiness that’s at the very end of something. But to have that be the actual starting spot was the idea.” We’re sitting in my living room on what is probably the windiest day in winter this season. The old windows in my apartment aren’t sealed well, and the entire recorded interview is accompanied by a pervasive cold wind. Every time Scott pauses as he’s thinking about the white noise sounds, it seems as though the wind picks up, as though it can tell that we’re talking about it. Wollschleger continued:
[White Wall] definitely represented a break in my own work, or in myself, or in my approach to art, where I wanted to see how you could start from nothing, and pull from within itself something. . . . If you were to drain music from itself, what would be left over?
The beginning of the piece is almost a sound installation. We hear the “breathing” of the four instruments as they are activated by white noise. The breathing turns into humming, slowly unearthing a melody. As this “song” emerges from the white noise, it begins to dance around the fluttering creatures that surround it. Wollschleger elaborated:
Again, this notion of unfolding from within itself was the goal—utopian chimera, Adorno’s dream. But I think ending it with a dance was my way of saying this isn’t going to happen. . . . That’s why I think I had to add that second movement.
Yet, the playful dance of the second movement also disintegrates. This pervasive feeling of being drained cannot be shaken. Wollschleger added:
I always think of the white noise as the bleached out remains of a human. Which I think is kind of beautiful idea: when nothing is left, that’s all that’s left, that white noise. . . . And after history, and after Brahms, and after all our feelings, what would there be? The white noise points to that language which might be left for us.
I happened to see Glenn Ligon’s Double America 2 (2014) at The Broad in Los Angeles when I was working on this piece. I remember waiting while a group of college students took selfies in front of it so that I could take a video with my phone to send to Scott. Ligon’s work, for neon and paint, is the word AMERICA in large capital letters inverted under itself. The lower AMERICA in the sculpture flickers slightly, unstable—a phenomenon that we are so used to it seems unintentional. And yet, is this Double America a reflection of itself? Ligon’s work is informed by his experience as an African American in the United States—his piece seeks to expose the idea of multiplicity in America, and in the self.
While these two works are seemingly unrelated, the idea of trying to essentialize experience made me view my interpretation of Wollschleger’s America differently.
Is America a set of clear identities struggling against each other?
Is America a complex texture that exposes multiplicity?
Is America endless lines of strip malls that blur into a texture of gray in a car trip across the country? A series of flickering gas station signs?
Is America an unraveling hopefulness that is only revealed for a moment?
Perhaps once we identify something we oversimplify it. Wollschleger’s America resists as it rotates through glitchy, fragile material.
In anticipation of the release of Scott Wollschleger's debut album, Soft Aberration, I will be sharing my program notes for each of the works. This week's notes are on Bring Something Incomprehensible Into This World for trumpet and soprano.
Coming out of the deterioration of musical dialogue that ends Soft Aberration, Bring Something Incomprehensible Into This World explores the sound of language itself. In a recent conversation discussing these two works, Wollschleger elaborated:
I think there’s a semiology of duet—how do you treat two people or two things that are going to have a discursive interaction?
The text, [originally: “Bring something incomprehensible into the world!”] is from the philosopher Gilles Deleuze in reference to Heinrich Von Kleist. I think of the title as a very affirmative statement of what I personally think the goal of art should be: rendering something into existence that is inconceivable before it happens. That to me is the most powerful thing I can imagine doing with my energy.
While the work was originally conceived as a whole, it has been split into three sections for this album. These three parts link the other works together in an arc, framing them and showing their relationships. In Part I of Bring Something Incomprehensible Into This World, Wollschleger says:
The trumpet and voice are in a playful dialogue. The text is presented in fragments. The fragments are made of single words or just syllabic sounds. I found breaking the text up into smaller sounding parts allowed me greater flexibility when writing the piece and ultimately allowed for a more free-spirited approach. The arrangement of the vocal sounds sometimes imply new words and phrases.
Now framing different works on the album, each section of the piece takes on a different exploration of sound. We start hearing how little melodic fragments of this piece are hiding in other works.
Often the trumpet and the voice blend together to create what I call a “dirty unison.” I imagined the sounds of the words themselves being “smeared” by the trumpet’s sounds. I think the interaction between the voice and the trumpet implies a kind a hybrid instrument or a mutant offspring that is the combination of the trumpet and the human voice.
Rather than pulling the words apart more, this version in three parts becomes the mantra or philosophical goal of the album: Bring Something Incomprehensible Into This World.
In personal correspondence, Wollschleger once said of this process:
There are not going to be concrete solutions anytime soon but there are going to be concrete experiments that are pushing to articulate a new version of the real. You’re doing this in all its unclear and painful glory. . . . Just remember you’re not crazy. You’re actually creating a new way of thinking.
In anticipation of the release of Scott Wollschleger's debut album, Soft Aberration, I will be sharing my program notes for each of the works. This week's notes are on the title track, Soft Aberration, for viola and piano.
It’s very difficult for me to write about this piece because I’m so close to it: Soft Aberration was written for Karl Larson and me. In my interpretation of the piece as a performer, the piano sets out its idea of how things are structured by itself—the entire first section is void of the other instrumentalist. When the viola enters, it is holding onto the memory of a melody that used to be beautiful, now so far beyond even being a melody that it is just shapes of white noise. Perhaps we never actually hear the original, only an idealistic version in harmonics. At the center of the piece, the hearts of the two instruments are exposed, but ultimately this is not a place we can stay.
This interpretation is not something any of us had discussed explicitly, so I was surprised that Scott’s musical intention was so clear when I read his final program note for the piece:
Soft Aberration is a piece about imitation, but rather than sharing identical musical material I imagined each instrument as a damaged reflective surface which projects a kind of “broken echo” between the two instruments. In some sense the piano wants to “see itself” in the viola’s music and the viola wants the same from the piano. The two struggle with this throughout the piece and at various times they find a way to “see” each other.
In a recent conversation, Scott elaborated on the poetics of white noise as used in this work:
Your part in Soft Aberration is something that’s gone. But also, I thought of it as a mirroring thing where you’re not able to see each other because this is true of life—everyone, no matter how close you are—there’s a part of you that they’ll never know and you’ll never know them. . . . This is the mystery of life in a way, to never fully be able to express yourself to someone. We’re always missing each other a little bit.
Soft Aberration is out on New Focus Records October 20th!
One of my students in the Contemporary Music Ensemble at University of Northern Colorado asked if I could put together a list of works they should listen to because, he said, the "new" music he was used to hearing was not as weird as the new music we are doing in class (so far we've had units on Deep Listening and the Wandelweiser Collective).
So, here are some composers that students should know if they're studying with me, in no particular order. I left out some important collaborators and intriguing new discoveries, but I need to go run and teach the viola:
Andrew Norman, Play (2013, rev. 2016)
Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Aeriality (2011)
Dai Fujikura, Engraving (2014)
No listening guide for this one, but I'll be publishing some brief thoughts in the next issue of the American Viola Society Journal on Engraving, which I gave Dai feedback for when he was writing it. Here's the blurb on Dai for AVS:
. . . I think that’s part of what Dai Fujikura wanted to do by the asking the performer to determine the order of the “elements” and therefore the form in Engraving. By forcing the performers to chose which permutation of the piece to play, he is making them think about how these textures or systems of organization could be put together to create a piece. He asks them not just to learn the notes, or to be able to execute the piece on a “surface level,” but also to take part in the process of thinking deeply about how one thing leads to another.
(I have one of Dai's manuscript pages up in my office, for curious students . . . )
Caroline Shaw, To the Hands (2016)
From the composer herself:
I’ve made all parts available here. With the understanding that any performance of this piece is accompanied by rigorous solicitation of donations for those without homes (locally and globally), and strong support for active & informed conversation with policy makers. Let us open our hands to those of others. (What are these wounds, in my hands, and in yours?) Walls are not the answer. We are all creatures.
Tyshawn Sorey, Verisimilitude (2017)
Alex Ross's piece in The New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/07/10/tyshawn-sorey-defeats-preconceptions
Eliane Radigue, L'Île Re-Sonante (2000)
Kate Molleson's wonderful interview with Radigue: http://www.edition-festival.com/?p=252
Vijay Iyer, Far From Over (2017)
This is the album I brought into class to add to our little studio lending library. Here's a teaser from ECM (and some of you may notice Tyshawn on drums!).
Kate Soper, Ipsa Dixit (2010–16)
Alex Ross's piece in The New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/02/27/kate-sopers-philosophy-opera
In anticipation of the release of Scott Wollschleger's debut album, Soft Aberration, I will be sharing my program notes for each of the works one at a time. The album is out on New Focus Recordings October 20th! Pre-order here.
Sorting through a box of his old manuscripts, Scott picked up a stack of grid paper covered in blocks of black, red, blue, and green drawn in colored pencil. “This is another Brontal score,” he said, flipping through the pages. Brontal Symmetry is comprised of a series of “discarded scraps” of music from other pieces, here introduced in a sort of memory game. Each sound object is revealed and then slowly taken away while new ideas are introduced. What is left from these “scraps” is a series of sensations—objects without the context of their original meaning.
“Brontal” is a made up word that longtime collaborator Kevin Sims coined after making a series of pencil drawings on orange paper. The word now embodies Wollschleger’s aesthetic: the idea that we can create something very basic and human by discovering the sensation of an object. In doing this, we are making something unfamiliar very immediate. This process of discovery can be very focused and also, at times, very funny.
The humor of curiosity is very apparent in Brontal Symmetry. In recent personal correspondence with Pala Garcia of Longleash (for whom the work was written), she said:
I think the funniest aspect of Scott’s piece is the cartoonish aesthetic—even in the most chaotic, violent parts, it still only feels like cartoon violence—nothing irreversibly fatal, just punch-drunk swirling stars. The last piano flourish reminds me of cartoon heroics—like when classical masterworks are used in cartoons for melodramatic effect. The opening sections have their own kind of humor, more a caricature of humdrum monotony—perhaps the kind of New York City monotony that's never actually that ordinary or boring, just predictably weird.
Read the next post in this series on "Soft Aberration."
Starting out the year with a performance of Caroline Shaw's In Manus Tuas tomorrow for the University of Northern Colorado School of Music convocation!
I'll also be playing chamber music on two faculty recitals this fall. First up: Euridice Alvarez, Willem Schalkwyk, and I perform the Loefller Two Rhapsodies for oboe, viola, and piano on September 7th. In October, I'll be performing Bridge Songs with Melissa Malde and Willem.
*****UPDATE: Now available worldwide! Dai Fujikura: Chance Monsoon