Christian Wolff: Long Piano (Peace March 11)
CD Review From Classicstoday:
How to describe Christian Wolff's piano idiom? Sparse, terse, usually dry, more rhythmically elaborate than its surface style reveals. There's little charm, although some of his fast, supple keyboard writing raises an occasional smile. It's music that always has been difficult for me to love, yet I certainly respect Wolff's refined craftsmanship, unyielding integrity, and seriousness of purpose, plus the fact that he rarely if ever repeats himself.
All of the above comments apply to Long Piano. The work is exactly what the title implies: a long piano piece. It consists of 94 numbered "patches" that follow one another without a break over 59 minutes. You'll encounter flowing, tuneless lines, stabbing chords interspersed with silences, asymmetrical counterpoint, jagged aphoristic gestures that exploit dynamic extremes. There also are lively, rhythmically engaging passages that evoke the kind of "messy order" characterizing peace marches (the start of Track 7, or about five and a half minutes into Track 3, for example). Although I find some sections arid and dull, other parts readily engage my attention and wear well with increasing familiarity.
Wolff has long been fortunate to have ardent advocates like Ursula Oppens and Frederic Rzewski champion his music, and more recently, the excellent Bay Area-based pianist Thomas Schultz. Schultz's superb technique, keenly judged articulation, and rigorous musicianship arguably set reference performance standards for what I suspect will be looked upon as Wolff's solo-piano magnum opus. Special mention should be made concerning the fine sonics and cogent, well-written booklet notes.
CD Review From Dilettantemusic:
Christian Wolff: Long Piano
Album: Christian Wolff: Long Piano
Label: New World Records
In 2004, the Music Department of Stanford University made an unusual commission to composer Christian Wolff on behalf of pianist Thomas Schultz for a piano work lasting an hour that was not subdivided into individual movements, in the manner of cycle, collection or sonata. This was quite a challenge for Wolff, a onetime acolyte of John Cage, who has a preference for working in short forms; sometimes very short -- the eighth piece in his Keyboard Miscellany (begun in 1988 and continuing as of this writing in November 2009) runs just 17 seconds. Nevertheless, Wolff accepted the commission and spent a year composing Long Piano, which Wolff produced through the development of 93 patches of various lengths; a final, 94th patch was added as a kind of a preamble to the whole when Wolff decided that the overall piece was still a little too short. He also has added Long Piano to his series of Peace Marches, which he began in 1983; this is designated as Peace March 11.
The preamble added last is one of the most engaging parts of this long work and really throws down the gauntlet; it is like a dense and complex Ivesian gesture that is separated slowly, like someone pulling apart a slinky. There is some measure of modeling and quotation used in the work, which Wolff happily admits to, but that is just one among a number of strategies both notational and artistic employed in Long Piano; from the standpoint of notation alone, Wolff ranges from straightforward, fully written out passages to others where only the rhythms are indicated and pianist Thomas Schultz is required to hang the notes onto them. Long Piano has a great sense of variety, yet a sense of forward trajectory and storytelling as well; part of that effect can be attributed to Wolff's sense of texture -- he tends toward relatively skeletal textures of 1-3 voices that are occasionally punctuated by chords, and in terms of his harmonic ideas atonal and tonal sequences live side by side; Long Piano often feels like a long melody is spinning forward without retracing its own path as a melody typically does. There are moments of subtle humor as well, for example in track 6 where at one point a Schoenbergian sounding outpouring of chromatic counterpoint is interrupted briefly by a tango-like rhythmic figure.
Schultz obviously appreciates the return on the commission and gives it his best effort in this recording. Obviously in works where the performer is viewed partly as collaborator there is an extra incentive to play it as well as you can, and though it doesn't always work out that way, in this case Schultz puts his best foot forward. As the old adage goes, "Tall oaks from tiny acorns grow;" Long Piano is a tall oak grown from tiny acorns that will serve to stand prominently in the forest of music that constitutes Christian Wolff's legacy. ~ Uncle Dave Lewis, All Music Guide
from POINT OF DEPARTURE an online music journal
New World 80699-2
Without the benefit of reading John Tilbury's authoritative booklet essay, "Christian Wolff and the Politics of Music," Wolff's hour-long "Long Piano (Peace March 11)" for solo piano initially registers as an endearingly ambling and autumnal work. In a seemingly casual, glancing manner, Wolff references touchstone-like composers from Bach to Ives, explores counterpoint and chorales, and reiterates an admiring, if arms-length relationship to the trajectory of jazz piano established by Monk. Pianist Thomas Schultz reinforces this impression with a performance that balances razor-sharp articulation with a discernable desire to let the music breathe. Although this is a piece whose mantle of "composition" is never obscured, there is a ruminative feel to "Long Piano (Peace March 11)" even in its most intense passages, one frequently found in improvised piano solos.
However, Tilbury, who knows the composer, his music and his milieu as well as anyone, places the work within an exactly drawn political context, one shaped as much by Wolff's having children as any ideology. One of Tilbury's many illuminating citations is Wolff's comment about his intent for a piece from the early '70s, "Changing the System," which he describes the music as a "focusing of concerted, persuasive but not coercive energy." If, indeed, "Long Piano (Peace March 11)" is an essentially political statement, this lack of coercion is central. Indeed, the political context of the piece is something of an afterthought for Wolff, who admits tacking on the opening "peace march" - which uses tablature that assigns fingerings and rhythms but not pitches - as an "optional prelude" when he thought the piece might not meet the commission's stipulation for an hour-long work.
One is left with the idea that politics inform but do not determine Wolff's music. Tilbury leads his essay with David Tudor's observation in the early '70s that Wolff's "music had loosened up" as a result of having small children. Nearly thirty years later, "Long Piano (Peace March 11)" retains that looseness, even in its arch passages. Wolff's flexibility with materials and process is impressive; not only does the music conveys many moods but it also elegantly morphs from one "patch" to another (the piece has a total of 94 patches, including a few left blank to signify silence). It is music at its core, not doctrine.
End of Year: Releases of Note 2009 part 2
posted on A SPIRAL CAGE
Christian Wolff Long Piano (Peace March 11)
performed by Thomas Schultz (New World)
As I've intimated in the past I find it difficult to write convincingly about Christian Wolff's music. There really is little more embarrassing then uniformed writing about classical music and rather then add too much to that unfortunate tradition I tend to demure. Wolff is difficult to write about because there is so much that has gone into the music, to make it what it is, that to ignore or gloss over that really does the music a disservice. Fortunately for you dear reader, New World has made the liner notes for this wonderful new disc available online so you can read John Tilbury's insightful notes on Wolff's music and this piece in specific. Along with that it contains a bit from Wolff himself explaining about the piece's composition and Thomas Schultz writing about playing the piece.
"[Long Piano] seems to me like a kind of geological agglomeration. My hope is that it forms a possible landscape on one extended canvas. At first I just started writing and kept going. My tendency is to work in smaller patches. After the piece was finished I saw Jennifer Bartlett's wonderfully engaging and cheerful work Rhapsody, first shown in 1976. It's a 154-foot sequence of an arrangement of 988 one-foot-square silk-screened and painted enamel plates running around at least three walls of a gallery space. An extreme instance of what I've got in mind." - Christian Wolff from the Liner notes
The prelude to the piece is the titular peace march which once again works in Wolffs deep commitment to humanity and social justice. TIlbury elegantly outlines this history in his essay in the liner notes and makes the essential point that Wolff, unlike his friend Cornelius Cardew, never gave up his commitment to the music in pursuit of these notions. Of course this works out better in some pieces then in others and in this piece, Wolff's political statements are pretty oblique, fully at the service of the music it seems to me. Quoting again from the liner notes:
Long Piano begins unequivocally with a political "statement," and yet in response to the question about the peace march from Long Piano, Wolff was equivocal. He simply replied, inscrutably, that "maybe it's just to remind oneself. In my more recent work that content a number of times relates to a political mood, assertive, resistant, commemorative, celebrative, for instance. The connection may be fairly tenuous or subterranean; it is often discontinuous. "
It is a shame really that Wolff's music is so unknown as much of it really is so appealing and not just to new music fans. Wolff worked a lot with interesting rhythmic devices, indeterminacy of composition and performance, empowering of the performer, but he never eschewed melody and his pieces are often quite charming as well as fully engaging on multiple levels. It is this dual aspect that again makes reviews that focus on the surface elements so useless as in many cases the magic lies beneath. And yet, Wolff always made those surface elements so compelling that the music can appeal to all really. As he wrote:
"But my notion is that music can function better socially if it is more clearly identified with what most people recognize as music, which is not a question of liking or disliking, but of social identity. By function better socially I mean help to focus social energies that are collective not individualistic, and that may therefore be revolutionary politically."
The music herein may not appeal to many of those who read this site, but they are well worth a listen. The dissonance of some of the chords, the spaces between the sounds, the occasionally driving melodies, the odd rhythmic patterns all mixed together may seem inexplicable, maybe even a mess, but it all hangs together. The initial Peace March is perhaps the most incongruous, the "patches" that make up the primary piece contain all that I've ever loved in Wolff's piano music and more, showing that his program is endlessly developing and always changing. At times beautiful in a way that evokes Feldman, yet owns nothing to him at other times beautiful in a way that brings Cage's Number Pieces to mind and still at other times almost having that rigorously random sensation that Webern can inspire, while still others makes me think of Cecil Taylor! It evokes these, but never seems derivative of them always sounding to me like Wolff. Finally the performance of the piece by Thomas Schultz, who commissioned it is really quite a nice, a pianist I was previously unfamiliar with, but one I will keep my ears open for.
Finally Wolff's music is a perfect example of the notion that I've long espoused that music based on ideas is richer because of it. Wolff puts this in the liner notes more succinctly then I ever have, so let me close this piece with another quote from him:
"Every piece, I think, has, in addition to the abstract arrangement of its sounds . . . what I would call a content, something that it suggests, which is not the same as its sounds, though such a content may deeply affect those sounds, how they are arranged and how they appear to us."
- Christian Wolff, quoted in the liner notes
Christian Wolff LONG PIANO New World
The full title of this work, commissioned by pianist Thomas Schultz, who performs it here, is Long Piano (Peace March 11), which might lead those familiar with Christian Wolff’s longstanding commitment to left-wing politics to expect something huge, heroic and user-(worker?-)friendly in the manner of Cardew’s Thälmann Variations or Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated. It isn’t. It’s long, certainly (just under an hour), and falls into sections – or patches, as Wolff calls them (the term being a reference to the visual arts, particularly Jennifer Bartlett’s huge Rhapsody, an arrangement of 988 foot-square plates, which the composer was taken with when he saw it just after finishing this piece) – rather than opting for the old(-fashioned?) variation form favoured by Cardew and Rzewski. Wolff’s notation, often a kind of tablature which specifies rhythm but leaves the choice of pitch up to the performer, also makes the pursuit of melodic and harmonic cross-connections between the patches a difficult exercise. In short, this is music to engage with actively as a listener: politics in action. In an excellent essay accompanying the release, “Christian Wolff and the Politics of Music”, John Tilbury writes: “Unlike his [Wolff’s] close friend Cornelius Cardew, who sacrificed all on the altar of revolution, Wolff never loses his musical focus; he always writes goodmusic. For Cardew music was the handmaiden of the revolution; it did what it was told and it suffered.” One wonders what Cardew would have made of Wolff’s recent music, had he lived long enough to hear it. Not a lot, I imagine – for this is often tough stuff, lean and contrapuntal, uncompromising and erudite, referencing amongst others Schumann (Kinderszenen) and Ives (Three-Page Sonata), and certainly not something you could imagine the comrades singing along to as they march along the street. Then again, Marxist theory isn’t light, coffee table reading material – why should music not demand a similar effort on the part of the listener? Stick with it; it pays off.
New World Records