The music of Scott Wollschleger can be as difficult, or easy, as the listener wants it to be. As evidenced by Soft Aberration (New Focus Recordings), the first collection of his work, the composer isn’t afraid of making listenable music; it often moves quite slowly, but more often than not it moves quite beautifully. At the same time, the rhythms and shifting structures he employs will trigger the ear of the focused head-nodder.
Though the CD contains works for varied instrumentation, Wollschleger shows a particular affinity for the piano. And over two concerts at Spectrum’s new location in Brooklyn, pianist Karl Larson is presenting “The Complete Piano Works of Scott Wollschleger” (the first installment last November, the second on February 2). Then on February 28, Larson and his bandmates in the trio Bearthoven present the local premiere of Wollschleger’s American Dream.
National Sawdust Log spoke recently with the composer about the piano, the importance of words, and the decaying of America.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: Thanks for taking the time to chat, Scott. I have to ask something right off. It’s not a question I routinely ask in interviews, but I think you’ll understand why I am in this case. The question is: how old are you?
OK, so at age 37, you’re presenting your complete piano works at Spectrum. Isn’t that a bit… premature? Or are you done writing for the piano already?
Ha, yes, I hope it is premature, and I do imagine I’ll write again for the piano. I tend to write piano music even when I’m not planning to, so an accidental (or hopefully planned) piece will most likely happen, but there are no plans at this time. Karl Larson actually approached me with the idea to do the “complete” works. At first I was a little shy to bill the concert as such. But then I figured, what the hell, I could die any day—why not? I think Karl also saw how all the works programmed together could make for a compelling concert experience. Taken together, the works do paint a picture. Also we both have grand plans to someday release an album of my solo piano works, and we figured programming all of the works together would be a great way to get started.
That’s quite a commitment to your work! How long have you known Karl? What is your working relationship like?
Karl is an amazing collaborator and a dear friend. He’s a composer’s dream to work with. Karl and I have been working together for about six years. Our working relationship is extremely organic. We’ll hang out about once a month or so over beers at the Ice House in Red Hook (where Karl lives), and once we get talking, there always seems to be an endless amount of cool projects we start planning together. Besides hanging out and making awesome music together, we’ve also taught together at some colleges outside the city.
Do you have Larson in mind when you write for the piano?
It’s strange, when writing non-solo piano music I always have to imagine a person or an ensemble playing the piece. When I can see the piece being performed in my mind, I’m able to write it. But it’s the opposite when writing for just the piano. Most of my solo piano works were written for myself, with no intention of being concert pieces. I’m actually always surprised how good they can sound when a real pianist plays them. A lot of them also were written on accident; they just sort of popped out. I’ve dedicated a number of these works to Karl but was not thinking of him in particular when writing.
That said, I definitely had Karl in mind for a number of other recent works, like when I composed my piano concerto, Meditation on Dust, for him in 2015 and more recently when I composed American Dream for his trio Bearthoven. I love Karl’s tone, his patient timing (which is super important in my music), and the way he voices my clustery harmony. Karl totally gets the floating, glowing space I’m trying to build with my music. Definitely when making piano chords, I often think, “Karl would make this chord sound so good”.
Bearthoven is a bit unusual in that it has the instrumentation of a jazz piano trio (piano, bass, drums) rather than a classical piano trio (piano, violin, cello). They’ll give the New York City premiere of American Dream at Roulette on Feb. 28. What can you tell us about writing that piece and what the title means to you?
Collaborating with Bearthoven has been an incredible experience. Despite the lean instrumentation, American Dream is an epic piece. The piece is over 30 minutes long, and it definitely pushed my musical and conceptual boundaries. I think it also pushed the group’s already-phenomenal musicality to the limit, and the result is really electrifying. American Dream is musically structured like a dream – the trio jumps between a variety of contrasting “musical scenes.” The scenes are musically connected by a series of simple thematic threads that are perpetually re-orchestrated and re-contextualized into contrasting grooves. The result is a kind of musical channel surfing.
The music traverses an emotionally complex terrain, and it channels some deep feelings of despair, sadness, feelings about what the fuck it means to be living in America right now—but it also channels a sense of hope and serenity. There are many moments of tenderness, dark humor, and a kind of gregarious fragility. It was composed between 2016 and 2017, and while writing it I thought it was maybe a reaction piece about contemporary politics. But now that it has been written, I think it is really about the disintegration of my sense of the world. I think a lot of us felt this disintegration this past year, and we’ve probably been feeling it for some time. Much of my recent music has been about the end of the world, and in many works I’m trying to arrive at a kind of music and a kind of musical thinking that comes after it’s all over.
American Dream is very much about this place at the end. But what was surprising, and perhaps what saves the piece, is that in dwelling in this place where it all feels over, it’s also the same place where I was able to arrive at a profound sense of innocence, an innocence to being alive and creating in the moment. At the end of things, we don’t have to have any baggage anymore—the horizon is truly open. I hope others also get these things from the piece too.
Perhaps also ahead of your age, a CD of your work for different instrumentation was released last year on New Focus. The whole disc is exceptional, but let’s start by addressing the cello solo, America. Anything you want to add about this patriotic stripe in your work?
America, much like American Dream, is about my complicated feeling about the country and its culture. I’ve never had a strong sense of myself, of who I am, and I think this is because I’ve always felt alienated by being an American. I’ve always felt an outsider looking in on American culture. There’s a great Kierkegaard parable about a horse farm where all the horses there have been rejected by their owners because they no longer could do, or never could do, normal horse stuff. The story is told from the perspective of a horse who looks in on this farm from a perch on a hill, outside the farm, and he contemplates how he cannot ever be a part of the rejected horse farm because he is an outsider among those who are already outsiders. I feel like this horse. Much of the piece America was written with the same feeling I have when driving through the negative spaces of the country, the feeling I have when driving through strip-mall parking lots and long stretches on highway roads.
The piece is about finding beauty in America’s banal and bland commercial aesthetic. I’m the guy who wants to find beauty in common parking lots and gas stations. On a musical level, I think you can hear in America a kind of banal material that is constantly being reshuffled. There’s a kind of resistance to settling on a fixed “theme.” I feel this resistance is akin to the resistance I feel towards us taking on a fixed personal identity. It’s something that used to bother me, that I could not settle on an identity or a “self,” but now I see it as liberating. I guess the piece is about this sense of freedom we can embody and live within when we move our thinking outside of fixed categories and fixed identities.
The disc opens with Brontal Symmetry, a piece for the traditional classical piano trio. In the liner notes to Soft Aberration, violist Anne Lanzilotti, who also produced and plays on the album, defines your invented term brontal as “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.” Is all of your work brontal?
Yes, I think everything I write could be called brontal. The good thing is it’s an attitude anyone can adopt and use.
Landscapes seem an important part of discovery to you. Elsewhere, you’ve talked about the brontal as embracing the contradictions of everyday life. You’ve given the example of wanting to be able to walk through a Walmart store and acknowledge your feelings of despair in the face of corporate commercialism, while experiencing the sensation of all the bright colors of packages on the shelves. How does a sense of place inhabit or influence your composing?
We’re always in a place—like, New York City is the place I’m in. A lot of my work is based on the idea of walking around the city, and we’re in a place that allows a lot of walking around. I think place gets in a lot of my work even if I don’t think about it. It’s possible to go through a place without thinking about it. I want the listener to experience something in a very simple way.
There’s also a gorgeous string quartet on the album, White Wall, played by Mivos. Do you find it more of a challenge to approach traditional instrumentations or more unusual ones, such as the trumpet-and-voice or piano-and-viola duos we also hear on the disc?
At this point I feel I treat all instruments in such an idiosyncratic way that it does not matter how traditional the ensemble is.
The piano/viola duo gave the album its name. Your titles are strangely evocative. What can you tell us about the notion of a “soft aberration,” and how does it come through in the music?
One definition of aberration comes from optics, and it’s when there’s an imperfection on a glass lens. The piece Soft Aberration is a duet where the piano and viola call out to each other and try to mimic each other as they would in a traditional duet, but in my piece they are unable to do this and instead each instrument reflects back to each other a kind of broken echo. So the two characters (the viola and the piano) can never fully see each other, but they keep trying.
This attempt to see each other is what I think love is. We never see each other fully, but we try. This idea of a broken reflective surface is also a perfect metaphor for my music. All of the pieces on the album embrace a sort of differential repetition of a simple idea. But the idea never really finds its ideal presentation, and instead you’re left with a process of discovering there never was an ideal presentation.
We share a fascination with words. Tell me about the text for Bring Something Incomprehensible Into This World, the three-part work for voice and trumpet on the album. The lyrics are a series of phonetic reconstructions of the title. Where does the title come from?
Just having that sentence was enough, I didn’t need a whole poem. The text is a quote from the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze [from his A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia] in reference to the German linguist Heinrich von Kleist, who was in favor of looking at an utterance as having the seeds of a thing. It’s a statement that’s an affirmation of creation in the moment. I think of that as the goal of art, in a way: to bring something that can’t be comprehended into the world. To me, that’s the love affair with art. It’s sort of pretentious to say that’s what art should do, but it’s kind of a mantra to me.
The album received a lot of nice attention when it came out. Did you anticipate such a response? Has it opened any doors for you? Is it making you think more than you might have about a second recording?
I’ve been completely humbled and surprised by how positively it’s been received. I’m incredibly grateful. It seems like a miracle, to be honest. The only thing I ever cared about was the music. I’m so lucky to have been able to work with musicians who also care so deeply about the music and who believe in my imagination. Yes, I’m seeing more doors open now and I’m more than happy to walk through them. I have so much more music I want to write. There is a second album brewing. Bearthoven will record and hopefully soon release a record of American Dream along with two other companion pieces written at the same time as American Dream. Fingers crossed the album is released within a year or so.
Red Light New Music [a composers collective and new music ensemble Wollschleger co-founded] included your Brontal No. 3 on its New Focus album Barbary Coast, and pianist Ethan Iverson, formerly of The Bad Plus, praised the piece in a review on his blog. The piano and, in a more general sense, rhythm seem like strong elements in your composing. What was your first instrument? Do you compose on an instrument? Do you still play?
Electric bass was my first instrument, followed by classical guitar. Then I settled on piano, but was quickly seduced by Scriabin’s harmony, and from then on I’ve only been composing. I sort of suck at playing music. I imagine music better than I play it. My wife says I don’t play the piano, but I “interact” with the sounds it produces. This is true. I think I’m always looking for a kind of musical interaction that feels alive and breathing. I like to say I’m composing the sound of sounds listening to themselves. I think this sort of breathing, sonic interaction can end up feeling funky, and sometimes abstractly groovy, so rhythm ends up being a strong by-product of the kind of sound interaction I’m always trying to paint.
What’s coming up for you after February?
I’m heading to the Oklahoma Electronic Music Festival in Tulsa with violist Anne Lanzilotti to present a new work I wrote for her. It’s a piece that incorporates field recordings I made of various places I call home; these sounds interact with the live viola, and the pieces ends with a two-minute recording of a nuclear bomb explosion. The viola gently plays a melody on top of the explosion.
Lastly, I’m not sure if I want to attribute the line in your bio, that you “follow lightly in the footsteps of the New York School,” to humility or hubris. What do the composers of the New York School mean to you?
My graduate composition teacher, Nils Vigeland, was a student of Feldman, and Nils definitely preached the gospel according to Feldman. So there is something of real lineage there, even if I try to shake it. But it was actually only after my schooling, when I had to reevaluate my music and its place in the real world, that I found myself more and more aligned with the composers of the New York school. If anything it was out of necessity. I wasn’t getting works performed at Tanglewood, but rather a dingy church on 86th Street. The thing I take away from the New York School was their sense of DIY aesthetics; they made art based on who and what was immediately around them at the time. I completely relate to that. I definitely feel my music is about an experience with sound rather than a competent display of fancy compositional technology.
The last thing I’m trying to do right now is to have some kind of dialogue with European history. I think the New York School (poets and painters included), before they were codified as such, were a group of creative, open-minded people who tried things out, failed often, had fun, and occasionally stumbled upon something profound. That said, I don’t care for the cult of personality or the one-dimensional ideological stiffness they sometimes professed (or later became), so a part of me is also like “fuck Cage and Feldman, fuck the New York School.” I also like classical music, and don’t feel we have to run from it like they did in 1956. But rather than being caught in some grand narrative of “greatness” that’s associated with classical music, I want to take from it what I can to make living, impactful work that’s grounded in a common everyday experience of today.
Karl Larson presents the second concert of his Scott Wollschleger survey at Spectrum on Feb. 2 at 8:30pm; details here. Bearthoven plays American Dream at Roulette on Feb. 28 at 8pm; details here.
Kurt Gottschalk has written about music for All About Jazz, Signal to Noise, The Wire, Guitar Player, Goldmine, NYC Jazz Record, Brooklyn Rail, Coda, Musicworks, New Music Box, Time Out New York, and publications in France, Germany, Ireland, Portugal, and Russia. He is the producer and host of the Miniature Minotaurs radio program on WFMU, and is the author of two books of fiction.