Rooms talk to me. I send out a sound, the space answers. The first message I picked up from the old barn in Umbria was “yes.”
Christian Wolff and I had been thinking, speaking about, even planning a CD with his solo percussion pieces since the premiere of the Dances in 1998. From that time I’ve been looking, waiting, hoping for the room that would say “yes.” Here we are.
Christian Wolff does not compose percussion music. His percussion pieces are about as far away from the usual percussion techniques as I have travelled. If pressed to describe his music, I start by stating that I have never heard anything like it. It is virtuosic — though not about virtuosity. Its appearance — often — deceptively simple — always concisely constructed. Christian Wolff invites us to join him on a journey to his magical world. A world where music we never imagined before exists. This is one of the spaces John Cage was talking about when he asked us to “let sounds be sounds.” So they are. And there is so much music to be discovered there.
Robyn Schulkowsky © 2004
Merce (1993), for Merce Cunningham, is a collection of percussion pieces for from one to nine players, from which selections and combinations can be made. The piece here is the first solo, for drums.
Percussionist (2000 -) is a collection of pieces, still being worked on, for soloist. The piece here is for stones,wood and resonant metal (a triangle).
Percussionist Songs (1994-5) were made after first
meeting Robyn Schulkowsky in 1993, for her to play. There are seven parts or songs. The first uses drums, the second metal, the third marimba and freely chosen resonant objects, the sixth a choice of material not previously used, the seventh primarily metal. The material is mostly used melodically, except for the sixth song where I had heartbeat in mind. Sometimes there are two or more lines going on together; in the seventh song it’s a rhythmic transcription of the beginning of a five-part chanson by Josquin Desprez. The third song draws its pitch material from the medieval English song Westron Winde. On this recording Robyn has made a version of the fourth song using the sound of wands swung through the air (the hand and the body sounds were too quiet for clear recording and their presence, as much visual as acoustic, would have been lost). Song five is played here as a duo; it has four lines going on at the same time, each of whose sound durations depend on the time it takes for a sound to become (or be heard by the player to become) inaudible. For the seventh song, calling for up to five lines at a time, the recording situation allowed two of the lines to be dubbed over the other three.
Vergnügungen (2000) (“Pleasures”) has its title and text from a Bertolt Brecht poem:
First looking out the window in the morning
The old book that’s been found again
Snow, the change of the seasons
The old dog
Taking a shower, swimming
© Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main 1964
I made a song out of it to go with Berlin Exercises (2000). Here the words are spoken and the bit of tune for them is played on marimba.
Percussionist Dances (1997), moving on from the Songs, were next written for Robyn Schulkowsky. The title in part refers to my having learned how much a kind of choreography is part of percussion performance. There are three dances, each longer and sometimes more complicated or requiring different adjustments between the written music and how it’s played, than the Songs. The first dance winds lines around the feeling and rhythms of a sarabande. The second is more
straightfoward, like a scherzo or minuet (but not in rhythm). The third is contrapuntal like the first and towards the end its material includes variable choices for the player, usually about whether and how often to repeat a phrase.
Dear Robyn (2000) was a short faxed message consisting mostly of the brief melody played here.
Peace March is a simultaneous playing of Exercise 26 (Snare Drum Peace March) (1988) with Melody (1998), for melodica, which we first did in 1998 at Donaueschingen when Gisella Gronemeyer and Reinhardt Oehlschlägel asked for some music to go along with the presentation of the book of my writings that they had organized and published. Melody is
dedicated to them. The snare drum piece was made at the suggestion of Stuart Smith.
Most of these pieces would not have been written,would not be what they are, had I not met Robyn Schulkowsky. In the 1950s I admired Varèse’s and John Cage’s work with percussion, but I didn’t know how to respond. And I didn’t know any percussion players. In the spring of 1993, invited to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque by Chris Schultis, I made Merce for his percussion ensemble. Shortly after I met and worked with Robyn, and the solo pieces followed. Writing for percussion I’ve found is, more than for any other instrument, an experimental business. The music as I write it is, far more than usual, material out of which the player makes a music that is as much her own as the composer’s, a kind of trusting conversation whose exchange and flow is what I like and whose sound may in this way be just itself as well.
Christian Wolff © 2004