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Album Review

One of the so-called "New York Composers" (along with John Cage, Morton Feldman and Earle Brown), Christian Wolff's music arguably touched on a wider range of non-classical concerns than the others. He had tangential contact with various jazz or rock-associated musicians (Fred Frith performs on the title track here) and occasionally performed with the free improvising ensemble, AMM. This release shows something of his range, including a now "classic" earlier work as well as two more recent pieces. "Burdocks" drew inspiration from Cornelius Cardew's late 60s ensemble, the Scratch Orchestra, a group of players made of both professional and amateur musicians (and, indeed, "non-musicians") who played loosely drawn graphic scores, ragtag versions of classical warhorses or, more conceptually, followed written or verbal instructions that more or less resulted in musical activity. Here, the Other Minds Ensemble, a septet of players well-versed in both improvisation and contemporary music, is given a collection of ten compositional ideas that range from notated staves to vastly more generalized instructions. These can be played in any order, by any number of musicians, for any length of time, etc. The result is a wonderfully loose yet organic conjunction where form is both elusive and pervasive, where progress is spontaneously created without feeling forced but with perhaps a small breeze at its back. The interplay of acoustic and electronic instruments gives "Burdocks" a consistently fresh texture and deep sparkle. "Tuba Song," here played by Peter Wahrhaftig, is surprisingly lyrical, almost a lament, that dwells on the rich low tones of the horn, eliciting soft moans and sighs. The final piece, "Trio III," performed by Steven Drury (piano), Jennifer Choi (Violin) and percussionist William Winant ranges from the extremely delicate first movement, where note durations depend on the decay time of the sounds through more rigorous and tightly written sections. Again, as in the preceding work, there's a quality of melancholy, the violin keening in its lower registers over a tremulous piano in the third movement. It concludes rather giddily with an off-kilter almost-jig, bringing this fine disc to a quirky close. Burdocks is a good glimpse into Wolff's world and, especially given the sensitivity of the readings, is a fine entryway into his work.


Born: 08 March 1934 in Nice, France

Genre: Classical

Years Active: '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s

Studied a few weeks with John Cage, but otherwise self-taught. Pianist, guitarist. Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Harvard. Pioneered scores in open instrumentation, in open cueing systems, scores for non-musicians, and, along with others, scores in verbal instructions only. Teacher, Classics Department at Harvard (1962-70), lecturer Darmstadt 1972 and 74, Classics/Comp. Lit. & Music at Dartmouth. Changing the System...
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Burdocks, Christian Wolff
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