Bruce WOLOSOFF (b.1955)
Songs without Words: Eighteen Divertimenti for String Quartet (2008) [56:06]
(for complete listing, see bottom of review)
Carpe Diem String Quartet (Chas Wetherbee (violin); John Ewing (violin); Korine Fujiwara (viola); Diego Fainguersch (cello))
rec. 13, 15 October 2008, First Community Church, Grandview, Ohio, USA
NAXOS DIGITAL 8.559663 [56:06]
This was reviewed as a Naxos digital download.
Now here is contemporary music which just wants to have fun. Composer Bruce Wolosoff has wandered into an ideological battleground with these Songs without Words, eighteen short and enjoyable works in jazz and rock styles but composed for string quartet, and he knows it. I therefore beg the reader’s forgiveness for my hubris and, before reviewing the music and performance, choose to review the idea itself.
“Popular” is a dirty word in the academies of music today. I recently asked a composer friend about the music of “populist” Michael Daugherty, who has penned a symphony about Superman and works with titles like “UFO” and “Niagara Falls,” and he told me Daugherty was “terrible. He’s a pop musician who thinks he is a composer.” (I have my own problems with Daugherty, but that is for another review.) The academic institutions encourage this ideology by reminding students that composers of popular music are writing for the money, while composers of unpopular music are creating art, and never the twain shall meet. On one occasion, students with conservative taste at my local music school were actually discouraged from attending a recital of works receiving their premieres.
What are some of the adjectives used by our critical press to describe classical music written for fun? Well, “popular” is certainly one; it is useful because it expresses distaste for the uneducated masses who, presumably, will be lapping the stuff up. “Hollywood” is a word which comes up frequently in the discussion: where cinematic qualities in music once meant lavish orchestration, epic melodic lines and grand emotional sweep, “cinematic” now means formulaic, excessive or naïve beyond repair. “Entertaining” or “diverting” or “light” mean that the music is meant to tickle the ears, but demonstrates little craftsmanship, skill, or deeper meaning. The implication is that some composers possess an ability to “entertain” those uninitiated into contemporary sound-worlds, and that the music they produce is not a part of said sound-world.
Listen to Bruce Wolosoff’s hesitant entry into the verbal debate, in the last paragraph of his liner notes for this release: “Imagine my new-found joy at the possibility of writing music that my friends might want to listen to for pleasure.” It is sad that such a gifted, and incidentally very well-educated, composer would not discover until after age 50 that there was even a “possibility” of creating music to be heard “for pleasure.”
We seem to have forgotten something, haven’t we? Sometimes art is for something even nobler than education, contemplation, political critique, or catharsis: sometimes art is meant to be enjoyed. Beethoven wrote a Grosse Fuge and Six Bagatelles, too. Shostakovich gave us both the Eighth and Ninth symphonies. Mozart composed his Requiem and he also wrote The Magic Flute. Nobody would accuse Schubert’s Ave Maria of not being great just because it is so easy to enjoy. If today’s composers seem less up to the task of writing pure entertainment, or if their entertainments strike us as clichéd (many film scores), excessively angst-ridden (Joan Tower’s Made in America), or over-long and chaotically organized - there, I got in my complaint about Daugherty! - the fault lies with the composers, not with the very idea of writing fun music.
I suspect Bruce Wolosoff will come under criticism from a few colleagues for the Songs without Words. Wolosoff will be sharply critiqued for composing what he confesses is “rock- and jazz-based music.” He will be criticized, moreover, for writing some of these works while jamming out to rock ’n’ roll favorites. He will probably deserve some of the raised eyebrows he gets for giving these songs flippant names like “Dancing on My Grave”, “Creepalicious,” and “Cat Scratch Fever”. The Songs without Words are the first Wolosoff compositions to be released on compact disc, or even on digital download, which is how I acquired them. “What message”, some critic will want to know, “does this send? That the recording industry values frivolity and punishes seriousness?”
But the critics have actually been welcomed to the roast, by Wolosoff himself. His booklet notes ask a question: “This music is so much lighter and happier than my previous work. Did that imply that it’s not as serious? I worried what my composer colleagues would think. I wondered: is music with a happy aesthetic any less valid than dark, depressing, gnarly, and complicated ‘serious’ music?”
By putting the question in those words Wolosoff supplies the answer. He should not be worried what his composer colleagues would think, our instinct says. Then we realize that by worrying that in the first place Wolosoff has established (truthfully or not) that he is doing something different, possibly even heretical, here, by writing “happy” music, and that provoking the dismay of his colleagues may actually put the composer on the right side of matters. And even the hardest of hearts would have to confess that happiness does not make music “less valid” than sadder fare. Right?
Is it not sad that we even need to have this conversation? Is it not sad that Bruce Wolosoff, pupil of Joan Tower, friend of William Bolcom, graduate of the New England Conservatory, is worried about his colleagues’ reactions to “music with a happy aesthetic”?
My whole argument would go for naught if the Songs without Words were uninteresting, unimportant, or unenjoyable. In the long run they might be unimportant, and they are certainly of mixed merits, but none are less than fun and a few are engaging indeed. The modesty of their achievements, though, might make this review a bit anticlimactic.
The first song, “The River,” is a laid-back blues tune whose bare chord progressions remind me of Gershwin’s second prelude. “Circle Dance” is an American Midwest folk round, the kind of easy melody one might hear on the radio show A Prairie Home Companion. “Wound Up!” alternates between major and minor modes with the ease of a lost-love pop ballad. “Dancing on My Grave” is an old-fashioned all-out blues number and the Carpe Diem String Quartet really rock it. Blues comes back in pieces like “The Sidewalk Strut” and “After Hours.” “Creepalicious” lives up to its title, but not nearly as much, for what it is worth, as the music on the Smith Quartet’s album Ghost Stories. “Cat Scratch Fever” has a songlike second subject that reminds me of the nineteenth-century romantics. “Getting Down,” sassy and entirely pizzicato, is one of my favorites. “Survivor’s Truth” has echoes of bluegrass. “The Last Kiss” throws in references to Bach, if my ears do not deceive me.
To be sure, some of these “songs” are more interesting than others. “Circle Dance” is a compelling imitation of my native region’s folk music, but little more. “The Letter” repeats its attractive main tune a few too many times. Others pass out of memory as soon as they stop playing. The best, though, make this album a safe investment and a fun bit of listening.
The bottom line is that Wolosoff has indeed written popular tunes, but for the string quartet. Whether or not you will enjoy this depends on your ability to imagine a traditionally classical ensemble playing music which just is not classical, or only barely so. Wolosoff really is open to my friend’s criticism of pop musicians who think they are composers, although I have not heard any of his other work.
When I listen to living composers purely for a good cheer-up, I am probably more likely to turn to Naxos’s disc of concertos by Avner Dorman, or Robert Aldridge’s new clarinet concerto, but this album is not too far behind. Bruce Wolosoff’s song-cycle is ultimately more effective as an ideological declaration – fun is good – than it is as a work offered for repeated listening. Its pleasures are undeniable but unpretentious; it is not great music, but does not try to be. Sometimes, though, the most radical manifestos can arrive in the thinnest forms.
As a part of the Naxos Digital imprint, this album is currently only available for download at the website Classicsonline, where it sells for rather less than the price of a physical compact disc. Naxos informs me that a physical release on compact disc is scheduled for September 2010.
By no means great music, but that might not be the point
Songs without Words
No 1. The River [3:13]
No 2. Circle Dance [3:16]
No 3. Blues for Stravinsky [2:56]
No 4. Wound Up! [2:45]
No 5. Dancing on my Grave [1:53]
No 6. Reverence [4:13]
No 7. The Sidewalk Strut [2:29]
No 8. The Letter [3:00]
No 9. Skunk [3:17]
No 10. Young Love [4:35]
No 11. Creepalicious [2:05]
No 12. After Hours [3:10]
No 13. Cat Scratch Fever [2:58]
No 14. Getting Down [3:32]
No 15. Fire and Ice [3:07]
No 16. Tough Decisions [3:07]
No 17. Survivor’s Truth [3:18]
No 18. The Last Kiss [3:12]