Christian Wolff - A Complete Anthology of Solo and Duo Violin Pieces Music Album Reviews

Christian Wolff - A Complete Anthology of Solo and Duo Violin Pieces Music Album Reviews
Reaching back to the 1950s, this collection highlights the New York School composer’s fragmented, conversational style, as well as his music’s patient, intuitive qualities.

Since he began composing in the 1950s, Christian Wolff has made the embrace of the unexpected a central part of his work. As just a teenager studying with John Cage, the Nice-born composer became the youngest member of the influential New York School, a group of composers exploring indeterminacy and chance. Instead of dictating exactly how their music should be performed, these composers left crucial decisions up to the players; no two presentations of the same piece would sound the same. These tenets have colored Wolff’s compositions, which have an openness to letting the music go wherever the performers choose to take it. That’s especially evident throughout A Complete Anthology of Solo and Duo Violin Pieces, a new compilation of Wolff’s work for solo and duo violin that highlights the freedom inherent in his music, as well as the connectivity and communication that drives it.

Recorded by String Noise, the New York-based duo of Pauline Kim Harris and Conrad Harris, A Complete Anthology of Solo and Duo Violin Pieces surveys Wolff’s works for violin, zig-zagging between periods of his career. “Bread and Roses,” a solo violin work from 1976 that exemplifies of Wolff’s use of protest music, opens the album; 1950’s “Short Suite” and “Four Small Duos” come just a couple of tracks later, representing some of his earliest indeterminate works. Later on, we’re dropped into Wolff’s present: “Small Duos for Violinists,” composed in 2021 for String Noise, highlights the fragmented, conversational style he’s recently championed. When placed side by side, these pieces illustrate the twists and turns of his compositional life, but also reveal his persistent interest in writing patient, intuitive music.

Throughout “Duo for 2 Violins” (1950), Wolff’s first composition written under the tutelage of Cage, each violinist trades notes back and forth, exploring the patterns that can be formed with just three notes that are a half-step apart. It feels simpler than what he’d compose later on but shows a spark that would carry throughout his practice. The music often hovers in place, playing with varying textures almost imperceptible changes. Buoyant plucks erupt from long, bowed tones, moving from grainy to taut and back again. Forgoing dramatic vibrato in favor of a direct, resonant sound, Wolff finds meditation and grace within restriction.

Later pieces, like “Six Melodies Variation” (1993) showcase a wider range. A tribute to Cage composed in 1993, this piece finds inspiration in his mentor’s 1950 work “Six Melodies” and the music of William Billings, an American composer whose music appeared in Cage’s “Cheap Imitation” pieces. Springy plucks and effervescent bowing tumble out and fall into restful pauses, as in his earliest duos. But here, each violinist explores the highs and lows of the instrument, employing squeals and rumbles in equal measure. The music is structured around intricate, delicate counterpoint driven by each player’s interaction with the other.

Wolff’s solo works convey a sense of interiority, asking the violinist to dig deep to convey the feeling of the music. In “Bread and Roses,” whose melody comes from a protest song that was sung during the 1912 textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Wolff abstracts and distorts his source material, exploring the violin’s ability to play rich rolled chords and wispy, high-pitched sounds. Performed here with an appropriate defiance and vigor, it feels akin to the yearning of a solo Bach sonata, requiring the violinist to pack each note with feeling, whether the most vibrant double stop or the gentlest harmonic. 

But Wolff’s ideals come through strongest in “Small Duos for Violinists,” which he composed for String Noise in 2021. Here, he finds power in economical ideas: Each duet is a tiny snapshot built from small motifs, which the players develop by reacting to and with each other. It often scans as a conversation, with one violinist playing a pattern and the other following with repetition or a response. At times, they link together in counterpoint, but their lines often feel at odds, like two people talking over each other, until each comes together at a point of resolution. A deep communication drives the music and helps give the piece its spirited voice, fully leaning into the composer’s long held interest in counterpoint, listening, and social music-making.

Much of Wolff’s music is guided by serendipity. Nowhere is this clearer than during the fleeting 28 seconds of “Small Duos for Violinists 7,” an arresting moment that features a series of open chords that shine like a beam of sunlight. They appear in near stillness after earlier chatter, wading through dissonances and never quite resolving. It’s the greatest surprise on a winding record, a movement that seemingly appears from nowhere and quickly falls back into the ether. Wolff has spent his career embracing the unknown and the beauty that emerges from it in performance. More than 70 years in, he’s still finding more.
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Christian Wolff - A Complete Anthology of Solo and Duo Violin Pieces Music Album Reviews Christian Wolff - A Complete Anthology of Solo and Duo Violin Pieces Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on December 14, 2022 Rating: 5


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