Saturday, May 2, 2015

CD focus - George Balch Wilson's Concatenations

When electronic music started gaining traction in the 60's and early 70's, the number of people interested in creating it outnumbered the machines that could do it and mostly didn't have anywhere near the money to buy, or rather create, the machines necessary to do it (unless your name was Ma Bell).  As such, the only places to make it consistently and with financial support were certain universities and the occasional new music foundation, such as Paris's IRCAM.  Pieces created in these labs were primarily musique concrete - meaning that they were all pre-recorded and the "performance" was pressing the play button - so the only way to hear the pieces was through recordings.  There were some electro-acoustic pieces written at the time but they were simply live instruments playing along with a recorded part (at the time reel-to-reel tapes, and a lot of those have probably rotted by now) and were a minor solution to the problem that still required a tape player and sound system, meaning that playing those works was even more trouble than simply playing the tape to an auditorium.  While the public's imagination had been caught in previous decades with instruments like the theremin (and would be caught once again at the same time by the new stuff Moog was coming out with) the music written in the labs was almost exclusively on the cutting edge of the Avant-Garde, and the combination of caustic, alien music and rare instruments still seen as a novelty meant that the market for these pieces was virtually nonexistent.  Sure, there were a number of electronic albums that became popular, such as LP's by Morton Subotnick and Walter Carlos (and later Isao Tomita), but those records were either recompositions of classical favorites or space music.  The customers for those records probably wouldn't be caught dead with anything by Stockhausen or Xenakis*.  All of this created an academic electronic music scene where composers toiled long hours in isolated laboratories to make music almost no one would hear, and for many young composers that meant that they would never get the recognition they probably couldn't have gotten by sticking to the usual suspects of Acoustica (just ask Vladimir Ussachevsky).

One of these composers is George Balch Wilson, professor emeritus at University of Michigan and founder of that school's electronic music studio.  I discovered him through this piece:

There's no recording of this, mind you - it was just an interesting-looking American string quartet from the 50's published by the Society for the Publication of American Music.  I know I bashed SPAM back in my Marion Bauer article but once American classical music found ways to be both sophisticated and accessible SPAM took note and started publishing worthwhile music, and the 40's & 50's were SPAM's heydays.  This String Quartet is the only piece of Wilson's to get published by SPAM, and after doing a bit of research I discovered that the number of his works to get formally published can be counted on one hand.  That's not exactly the fast-track to wide recognition, and for a long time only two of his pieces were available on commercial recordings.  In 2013 Equilibrium Records released the only full CD dedicated exclusively to Wilson's works, Concatenations, and lo and behold, the great Maria Sampen, husband of saxophonist John Sampen, daughter of composer Marilyn Shrude and one of my old professors at UPS, performed one of the pieces on it, practically obligating me to listen to it.  What I found was richly wrought and challenging music that deserved to get some wider recognition, enough so that I'm doing a whole article based on this one CD.

We should start with the piece that has the best chance of becoming his best-known work, the Sonata for Viola and Piano from 1952 (the same year as the quartet, written when he was in his mid-20's.  His teachers had been Ross Lee Finney and Homer Keller, both well-entrenched in American Neo-Classicism (until Finney went serial), meaning that Wilson's early work, such as this Sonata, has a strong sense of form, organicism and balance.  The harmonic language has a fine mix of acidic polytonality with cords of octatonicism strung through the opening movement, but just enough yearning tonal chords to keep things anchored in the heart.  There are a number of cathartic and surprising moments to keep things from getting too academic but enough consistent flow to let things cook.  I kind of wish the performers would really commit to the emotional heaves and hos, as this recording is technically excellent but emotionally a bit flat.  The slow movement helps solve that problem, though:

This movement really brings out the dark tenderness that has made the viola a great solo instrument in its own right rather than just the violin's ugly sibling.  It's this kind of writing for the instrument as well as its genuine heart that made the Sonata a favorite among a line of viola teachers for a couple generations and should have at least kept the sheet music in print.  Part of the problem is that the work was published by the French firm Jobert rather than an American firm, a fate to befall a handful of other American composers (like Melville Smith and Joshua Fineberg) and keep their works from finding an accepting audience.  One of his works, Cornices, Architraves and Friezes for solo cello, was published by C. F. Peters, but one score on this side of the pond is hardly enough to establish a print reputation.  That, and Wilson spent a lot more time writing music like this:

Exigencies is the first of the two pieces to be previously seen on a commercial record, here reproduced with its original "performer".  The sounds and ideas here are both striking and very much in line with the trends of what the electronic music scene was tinkering with - dramatic stereo and quadrophonic effects, pre-fab sounds distorted into raw materials for new sounds, industrialism over naturalism, atmosphere over structure, noise over notes.  While a lot of this kind of music hasn't aged well Wilson has enough mastery over the sounds he's chosen here to make a real piece out of the material, though it's a somewhat fractured one, alternating between chaotic, almost improvisatory sound collages with eerie moments of calm not unlike Aphex Twin's ambient pieces.  It's certainly not unprecedented in the 60's, as this was around the time when guys like Lutoslawski and Penderecki realized that it was possible to make compelling atonal works out of pure gesture and drama.  Let's see how he applied these sensibilities to a piece using normal orchestral instruments, shall we?

I've heard a number of pieces like this for large chamber ensemble by now but I don't think I can remember one as wild and fun as this.  Scored for the unusual trio of amplified accordion, amplified classical guitar and drum set surrounded by the standard winds and strings, 1969's Concatenations (methinks Wilson likes fancy words) starts with a wacky schmear and charismas its way along from there.  Harmonic and formal clarity is thrown out the window along with the baby, the bathwater, the bathtub and a considerable loofah collection.  Sounds melt and vault through each other like a rooftop police chase.  Moments of relaxation are blitzed by accordion crunch blocks and weirdo humor, and the mood is closer to the soundtrack to the 60's Batman TV series than standard concert music.  The Batman reference is also apt considering how jazzy and unbridled much of the gestural and timbral decisions are.  It also helps that performers here, the University of Illinois Contemporary Chamber Players under the direction of Edwin London, really play the shit out of it, screaming through glissandi and anti-rhythms like they were riding rodeo with a nuke.  This is a piece I'd love to play, not just because of a balls-to-the-wall trumpet part but also because of the sheer nerve of the thing, and it's the kind of piece that audiences respond enthusiastically to even if they have no idea what in the Sam Hill just happened.  Check out his Wikipedia page and you'll see that he had a good run with bizarro installation pieces and musical assaults on an unsuspecting public, events I sorely wish I lived in the 60's to see.

The rest of the tracks on the CD (the third movement of the Sonata, Cornices, etc. and a Fantasy in Two Movements for violin and piano where the aforementioned Mrs. Sampen gets to shine) are excellent, though I'd like you to actually seek them out yourself and perhaps purchase the tracks, either in disc form or digital.  I'd also like to get in touch with Mr. Wilson if possible, as he apparently wrote some piano works and I'd love to shake them out of him.  In a better world this release would have gotten enough press to warrant the building of a website for his stuff, but that has yet to happen, which is where I come in.  It's nice to talk about current releases again, as it's been a couple years since I spotlighted Burr Van Nostrand and his performance and recording revival and there are times when writing these blogs make me seem dreadfully out-of-touch with current releases.  Wilson's a good egg, as well as the CD and the performers, and put together that's more than a dozen Grade AA eggs, I think.  Let's have more omelets, shall we?


*Though, if I'm being perfectly honest, I can't be seen with Stockhausen or Xenakis, either.  I do really love Xenakis's Charisma, though.

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