Christian Wolff: Sveglia / Philip Corner: A Joyfull Noise

Sunday 10 March 2024

Christian Wolff has now entered his tenth decade, and I Dischi di Angelica have celebrated by releaseing a concert of premieres and some of his older pieces, presented in Bologna in 2022. Wolff himself plays piano, with the addition of voice, whistle and “objects” on some pieces. He is joined by the expert Wolff interpreter, percussionist Robyn Schulkowsky, with additional percussion from Joey Baron and a local orchestra of seven electric guitars. The title work Sveglia is one of the premieres, using just the guitars. Wolff’s writing for the instrument consistently focuses on its ability to produce chiming notes with enhanced reverb and decay, retaining the delicacy of the plucked strings as much as possible. (Just a warning in case you’re jonesing for more Glenn Branca.) Sveglia does in fact have some abrupt unison moments, which serve as one of several means Wolff employs to break the continuity in what might otherwise become endless melody. Wolff’s feeling for continuity in music has always been expressed through the attitude of the performers towards the material and each other, requiring the musician to be consistently alert and receptive, alive to the changing nature of circumstances in performance. None of the ensemble pieces here use a conductor. The music, meanwhile, is in a constant state of starting over from zero, each sound new and independent. In Wolff’s mature music, this manifests itself in short, discrete melodic fragments that carry no particular momentum or direction, even before they are quickly re-set and start again from scratch. Paradoxically, it strikes the unprepared listener as suffering from an attention deficit, but the unhurried equilibrium that each piece desires is at odds with any tendency to hyperactivity. One learns to listen in the present, ready to be gratified at each moment without expecting a greater deferred payoff.

The other premiere, Roulette, brings all the musicians together, with Wolff and Schulkowsky sometimes playing amongst the guitars, while at others appearing solo or in smaller groups. This distinguishes the piece with a type of concertante form, creating a structure for itself as it progresses. The album begins with Exercise 10 from the early 1970s, arranged for piano and electric gutars. A quintessential Wolff composition, the ensemble strives to play a melodic line in unison, without overt directions on tempo or rhythm. The compositional ramifications are achieved through a process at once complex yet intuitive, attempting to find consensus on the fly. The album also ends with this piece, played in rehearsal with differences in approach and Wolff’s commentary to the musicians. The rather gentle sounds in these works are contrasted by Wolff, Schulkowsky and Baron taking a harsher approach to his classic open score from 1964, For 1, 2 or 3 People. Schulkowsky and Baron present a duo version of 2002’s Percussionist 5, which I found less compelling owing to its rapid succession of assorted timbres, making it sound much like much other concert percussion works. Schulkowsky’s performance of the solo Exercise 32 from 2011, on the other hand, is exemplary in the way it demonstrates Wolff’s musical thinking without the group activity, finding balance between the arbitrary and the intuitive, making sense of the intangibles to be found within the indifferent. Wolff also plays a few of his piano miniatures, including a valentine that could almost be a waltz.

As previously observed, Philip Corner is also ninety, so it couldn’t hurt to listen to a little more. Angelica has trotted out a selection from concerts of his choral music given in 2018. Chorus at The Corner: A Joyfull Noise features the combined forces of Coro Arcanto, Coro Per Futili Motivi, San Giorgio In Coro and Piccolo Coro Angelico conducted by Giovanna Giovannini with assistance from Silvia Tarozzi. Corner is also present. It is indeed a joyous occasion, with everything short and simple and a lot of the pieces running into each other. The singers hoe into these pieces with gusto, embracing the directness of it all. Corner’s compositions are interleaved with some takes on Italian folk songs “In Old American Style” and contrasted with 18th Century American Barnabas McKyes’ hymn Crucifixion. Giovannini’s own composition Scultura sonora is premeried here, along with several pieces written by Corner for the occasion. In fact, a lot of the tracks are tagged “world premiere”, including some pieces by Corner written as far back as 1970. I’ve still got my old qualms about the pedagogical aspect to Corner’s writing, and some of the singalongs here are a bit happy-clappy for my taste, but the significant thing about this album is the event it documents, showing a less-known facet of Corner’s music and, more importantly, singers and audience having an absolute whale of a time with Philip Corner. That Piccolo Coro Angelico is a children’s choir who sing in several pieces, including new stuff Corner wrote for them, and of course the kids are awesome. It’s telling that the longest track here is with the audience at the end, repeatedly applauding and cheering as the singers reprise pieces from the concert, under the title “An infinite encore”.