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Gernot WOLFGANG (b.1957)
Common Ground
Metamorphosis (2001) [10:58] 1
Common Ground (2005) [12:25] 2
Jazz & Cocktails (2003) [12:13] 3
Dual Identity (2005) [4:08] 4
Thin Air (2002, rev. 2005) [11:36] 5
Night Shift (2005) [8:09] 6
1 Margaret Batjer (violin); Brian Dembow (viola); Stephen Erdody (cello); Robert Edward Thies (piano); 2 Judith Farmer (bassoon); Armen Ksajikian (cello); 3 Tereza Stanislav (violin); Cécilia Tsan (cello); Robert Edward Thies (piano); 4 Judith Farmer (bassoon); 5 Margaret Batjer (violin); Brian Dembow (viola) Stephen Erdody (cello); 6 Delores Stevens (piano)
rec. 10 November 2005, Martinsound, Alhambra, California4,5; 12-13 December, Alfred Newman Recital Hall, University of Southern California, Los Angeles1,2,3,6
ALBANY TROY 854 [59:42]

 

Born in Bad Gastein in Austria, Gernot Wolfgang is one of that increasingly common breed of contemporary musicians equally at home in a variety of musical genres. He initially made a reputation as a jazz guitarist, playing with the QuARTet in Europe and recording a couple of well-received CDs in 1992 and 1995; his jazz compositions have been recorded by significant musicians such as the tenor player Harry Sokal, and guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel (on a recording with tenor player Bob Berg). Between 1990 and 93 Gernot Wolfgang taught Jazz Composition, Harmony and Ensemble at the Hochschule für Musik and Darstellende Kunst in Graz in Austria. He studied film scoring at Berklee College of Music and the University of Southern California. He has since worked on the music for a number of feature films and TV shows. He lives in Los Angeles and continues to work in the Film and TV industry as a composer and arranger.

In parallel, Wolfgang has also written plenty of concert music – included work to commissions by such bodies as the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (Desert Wind, 2006) and the Tiroler Kammerorchester InnStrumenti (Alpine Story, for string orchestra and percussion, 2004).

Here we have a selection of recent chamber works. The CD on which they are collected carries the subtitle “Groove-Oriented Chamber Music”. Given Wolfgang’s own musical background, I think this subtitle is somewhat misleading. In a brief booklet note, Wolfgang explains it:

“As a former jazz guitarist, rhythms are a top priority for me. Specifically, rhythms (grooves) that can be found in 20th century music styles such as jazz, rock and roll, pop, world music, electronica etc … I have made it my mission to find ways of organically incorporating grooves into orchestral or chamber music settings, hence the subtitle of this CD. That doesn’t mean that all of the music is based on grooves all of the time, but grooves play important roles within the individual pieces. My goal is to allow them to have an equal standing among the other compositional devices already established in contemporary concert music.”

In an article called ‘The Power of Groove’, excerpts from which are available on Gernot’s website (http://www.gernotwolfgang.com/), the composer states his belief that “if we fully integrate grooves into the concert music world, it will have the most positive effects on all of us. The grooves, when written and played right, will serve as points of reference to young audiences and make it more attractive for them to listen to what we do. On the way we will also have introduced an element for our own enjoyment, adding lots of positive energy, excitement and fun to our performances”.

 

Well, the listener, young or old, who comes to this music with ideas / expectations about ‘grooves’ built up perhaps from the experience of listening to, say, James Brown or the Black Eyed Peas, or, for that matter, to Miles Davis or Tito Puente, would, I suspect, give up pretty early on and leave disappointed. The ‘grooves’ in this music are simply not compelling enough, nor prominent enough, to satisfy tastes formed in such ways. On the other hand, a reasonably open-minded listener familiar with modern chamber music and approaching from that direction, as it were, is likely to find a great deal to enjoy here.

 

Wolfgang’s music is inventive and lively. Metamorphosis repeats a single theme a number of times, viewing it from different angles, placing it in a series of changing musical contexts. In Common Ground Wolfgang demonstrates just how attractive the combination of bassoon and cello can be. The work is in three parts. The first ‘Blues Upside Down’, is fairly rapid, its blues inflections handled with wit and the whole having a distinct swing (or ‘groove’, if you like). The second section, ‘Trading Places’, slower and more lyrical, gets its title from the way in which the two instruments change places, as it were, during it – the music played by the bassoon is transferred to the cello at its close, and vive-versa. Though there are some repetitive rhythmical patterns in places, I’m not sure that much is gained, in the way of understanding their function, by calling them ‘grooves’. The closing section, ‘Igor At Last’ – so-named because of a passing resemblance to Stravinsky’s Concerto in D for string orchestra – redeploys music from the two earlier movements, in an idiom which might be described as a rather polite kind of funk. Wolfgang writes very well and sympathetically for the bassoon, as in Dual Identity, for solo bassoon. Making some use of multiphonics, it is something of a demonstration piece for the soloist, but is more than just that, having a genuine musical argument to offer. The excellent soloist, Judith Farmer, is actually Wolfgang’s wife – so perhaps his obvious understanding of the instrument’s possibilities has an obvious source.

 

Jazz and Cocktails is an entertaining musical conversation, the musical equivalent of sophisticated talk over cocktails, with jazz in the background. There are what Shakespeare called “set[s] of wit well played” as ideas are sent backwards and forwards between instruments; there are rather domineering monologues, when one instrument or another seems unwilling to listen to its fellows; there are frequent changes of mood. The composer’s note tells us the piece “contains references to a number of my favourite composers and performers … Duke Ellington, Dmitri Shostakovich, McCoy Tyner and Maurice ravel are being paid tribute to at one point or another”. I confess that I didn’t pick up on all these allusions, but I still enjoyed the piece. Thin Air is a programmatic piece of a rather different kind. It is a musical response to a visit to the California Sierras, its three sections – ‘Mountain Goat’, ‘Twilight’ and ‘Paws’ – are pictorial in various ways and Wofgang’s experience as a writer of film scores is perhaps one reason why he proves so adept at this exercise. Night Shift, for solo piano, is a pleasant, wistful piece, an introductory lullaby leading into some nocturne-like passages; the whole has a quasi-improvisatory feel about it and is well played by Delores Stevens, though it is in danger of overstaying its welcome at more than eight minutes.

 

The recorded sound is good throughout. The performances all sound convincing and were made under the supervision of the composer, who is listed as one of two producers. So, though I have my reservations about quite how prominent ‘grooves’ really are in this music, this is a CD which has already rewarded several hearings. I shall certainly return to it before too long.

 

Glyn Pursglove


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