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Christian WOLFF (b. 1934)
Trio IX - Accanto (2017) [30:51]
Exercise 32 (2011) [14:01]
Exercise 37 (2018) [2:16]
Exercise 29-31 (2011) [17:27]
Exercise 37 (2018) [2:38]
Exercise 38 (2018) [5:12]
Trio Accanto (Marcus Weiss (saxophone), Nicolas Hodges (piano), Christian Dierstein (percussion))
rec. 31 January - 2 February 2020, Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Köln, Germany
WERGO WER74002 [73:05]

Seth Brodsky’s booklet notes for this recording admit that “the music presented here is pretty resistant to any programmatic reading” but that, in its abstractness, it remains “light-filled and honest. Or transparent, unpretentious, ordinary, a word Wolff returns to often.” Pretentiousness is in the eye of the beholder of course, and to force in a food analogy, one person’s dish of delight is another’s cheffy nonsense. Listening to Trio IX - Accanto you can however hear what is meant. This is one of those works where you can struggle at first with its feeling of seemingly disjointed lack of flow. The booklet sums this up as “studied discontinuity”, but only after exploring its content as “a trove of hidden songs, fodder for material but also ‘feelings and ideas’... The score exemplifies what Christopher Fox calles Wolff’s ‘synoptic’ late style: encyclopedic and enjoying all the fruits of its previous periods.” You can therefore listen to this as a procession of micro-vignettes, and let go of the conventions of musical ‘flow’. There is a certain narrative here however, and you can catch quotations from Bach cantatas, union songs and apparently even the Brecht/Eisler song “In Praise of Learning”, but these “troves” are hard to spot, and to me this is not really a piece that comes across as iconic of “class struggle and coming catastrophe.”

Listening to this half hour of chamber-music interaction is an odd experience. Wolff isn’t trying to charm us, but even with the work’s essentially abstract angularity nor does he shock or make us particularly averse - drawing us in here and there with winks of recognition or moments of drama, and then setting off on tangents that test our comprehension. What you need to abandon is that use of memory we all access to anchor ourselves within a musical narrative, and on which more conventional composers rely for their shaping of time through sound. There can’t be many pieces of music that make you surrender without any kind of threat, but this is one of them.

Wolff’s Exercises are unconventionally notated pieces that explore musical interaction in a variety of ways. No two performances will be the same, and this is intentional - none of these recordings has been ‘directed’ by the composer, and indeed the booklet tells us that “the performers rehearsed as little as possible… What you’re hearing is an agreement in the process of happening, to let-happen, to attend (listen, wait, pay attention, direct one’s mind).” Each Exercise has its own distinct qualities, from extended but quite poetic percussion in Exercise 32 to the relatively lively rhythms in Exercise 38. The similarities and differences in performance are demonstrated in two versions of Exercise 37. There is a compositional mind at work here of course, but the results remind me somewhat of free-jazz improvisation recordings which a majority of people seemingly love to hate - indeed, Exercise 38 has some quite extended jazz-feel passages. The booklet states that “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call it a sound, a sonic image, of freedom.” You may prefer your music more tightly-knit, but as a ‘change of scene’ this is the kind of recording that always invites you to widen your horizons.

Dominy Clements

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