Certitude and Joy, the World of Wold


MinMax 019

MinMax 019

This is one of those operas whose title evokes irony right at the start.  Like Ruggero Leoncavallo‘s “Cavalleria Rusticana” (Rustic Chivalry) and Virgil Thomson‘s “Four Saints in Three Acts” the title Certitude and Joy hardly seems to evoke the right emotions in this harrowing story taken right from the headlines of a case in 2005 in which a mother kills her children and dumps their bodies in San Francisco Bay.  This is contrasted with the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac in which God tells Abraham to slay his son.  Of course God stopped Abraham in the bible story but that was not the case with the more recent story.

English: portrait of composer Erling Wold, pai...

English: portrait of composer Erling Wold, painted by Lynne Rutter. oil on panel, 2002 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Erling Wold (1958- ) is a composer of whom I had been only distantly aware.  He is a California native and has studied with Andrew Imbrie, Gerard Grisey and John Chowning.  That right there gives you a clue to this man’s compositional range and skills.  He completed a Ph.D. from the University of California Berkeley in 1987 and has worked for Yamaha creating new synthesizer programs in addition to pursuing his musical interests.

The San Francisco Bay Area has such a rich and varied musical culture that it is not all that surprising to me that I hadn’t come to know this fascinating composer.  And it’s taken me a while to absorb enough about Mr. Wold to feel that I could write something intelligent about this CD.

The composer’s web site (click here) contains a plethora of scores and sound recordings of this prolific and interesting composer.  And there are numerous offerings on You Tube and there is a blog linked on his web site in which he discusses a variety of topics not the least of which is his own music.  It seems that he has created several operas including one based on William S. Burroughs’ early but long suppressed novel, Queer.  His chamber operas, A Little Girl Contemplates Taking the Veil and his opera on Pontius Pilate illustrate his interest in both religious and political themes.

I won’t even try to get into his orchestral, chamber and solo piano works.  That is the job of a future blog which I can assure you will happen.  But the main point of this blog is to look at this most recent offering of his chamber opera Certitude and Joy.

As best as I can describe in words, Wold’s accompaniment figures remind me of Philip Glass or John Adams at times but he is not a simple derivative  of these composers.  His vocal lines, almost all sung as opposed to spoken, are more like recitatives than arias and  suggest a more ensemble feel as opposed to the grand opera style of arias, duets, etc.

Aldous Huxley, Famous Last Words

Aldous Huxley, Famous Last Words (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

His libretto, ripped from the headlines so to speak, is a combination of philosophical musings, imagined dialogue and commentary from texts as diverse as Aldous Huxley’s writings on psychedelics and the more pedestrian musings of newspaper columns.  I think there is some affinity for Robert Ashley’s mysterious texts but again nothing derivative.  The work is perhaps political as social commentary but not as social protest.

What is important is that this work, thinly scored (though hardly thin in sound) for two pianos and a cast of singers, speaks directly and affectingly to the audience.  He manages to tell this tale in a fairly straightforward manner with occasional digressions for philosophical commentary.  But he never loses control of the narrative which flows on drawing you in to this sad story and leaves you with the questions he raises, albeit rhetorically, about the nature of religious revelation, mental  illness and the current state of our society and our world.  This is a tall order but Wold manages to fill it with just the right amount of drama and music that leaves the listener (and viewer if you see it live in person or on You Tube) seemingly with exactly the emotions I think the composer wrestled with in writing it.

Like the aforementioned Four Saints and Cavalleria, Certitude and Joy is a listener friendly opera with messages that are disturbing and go to the core of what it means to be human.  The performances by the fine duo piano team of Keisuke Nakagoshi and Eva-Maria Zimmerman (ZOFO) and singers Laura Bohn, Talya Patrick, Jo Vincent Parks, Kerry Mehling, Tranvis Santell Rowland with Bob Ernst, speaker and a cameo by the composer (I’ll leave that for listeners to find).  The beautiful recording on Paul Dresher’s MinMax label is distributed by Starkland and is available on Amazon and other outlets.  A worthwhile experience for all lovers of contemporary opera and drama.

Alvin Curran’s Fake Book at the Berkeley Arts Museum


Staging set up for the Alvin Curran solo performance at the Berkeley Arts Museum

Staging set up for the Alvin Curran solo performance at the Berkeley Arts Museum

On a cool Friday evening in Berkeley April 11th I proceeded to the Berkeley Arts Museum which sits across the street from the University.  It is a beautiful modern architectural creation with a large and resonant space where there was a large and colorful rug, a series of pillows and behind that a set of conventional chairs for the audience.  Many chose to sit on the rug close to the performer.

The set up consisted of a piano on loan from the Piedmont Piano Company, an electronic keyboard on loan from Paul Dresher along with Mr. Curran’s computer and and amplifier driving two speakers on either side of the keyboards.  The open space is just off the entry way of the museum and tends to have a fair amount of traffic and ambient noise of the people on the various levels.

Curran, now 75, has been a prominent figure on the contemporary music scene internationally since about 1964 when he was partnered with fellow expatriates Frederic Rzewski, Allan Bryant, Richard Teitlebaum and Carol Plantamura among others in the ground breaking Musica  Elletronica Viva.  They created events and happenings using live electronics in the days before such things were easily accessible.  He has continued to explore the leading edge of musical creativity throughout his long and ongoing career.

Curran playing a harmonica at the opening of the concert.

Curran playing a harmonica at the opening of the concert.

The concert began with Curran circumnavigating the audience in clockwise fashion beginning stage right and going around the audience making a full circle and returning to the front of the audience stage center.  he began by playing two simple chords on the instrument repeating them several times.  He then switched to another woodwind type instrument playing some unusual sounds.  When he took his place in front of the keyboards he set those instruments down.

Curran completing his circumnavigation which opened the performance.

Curran completing his circumnavigation which opened the performance.

He alternated between playing the piano and the electronic keyboard sometimes playing both.  He began with some simple sounding piano music and then turned to the electronic keyboard and began playing some of the samples on it.  They ranged from speech to electronic sounds.

At first the ambient noise of the crowd echoed gently in the museum along with the music.  Gradually as the music became more complex and louder the audience seemed entranced, taken on the ritualistic journey that comprises Curran’s work, Fake Book, a reference to books of musical lead sheets that musicians have used over the years to quickly and easily access a variety of materials for live performances.

The louder music then suddenly changed back to a softer dynamic and the reduction in the ambient noise of the audience and casual museum goers had noticeably decreased and one sense an increased attention and focus on the music.  All seemed to be drawn in to the variety of sounds and styles which Curran refers to as his “common practice”, a practice in which the composer uses any and all sounds, instruments and styles strategically to evoke the things the composer wishes to express.

Alvin Curran at the keyboards performing his Fake Book.

Alvin Curran at the keyboards performing his Fake Book.

Curran played for just over an hour without pause an encyclopedic diversity of styles and ideas evoking the musical past in classical sounds, jazz sounds, modernist sounds.  The electronic keyboard samples played voices, radio snippets, electronic sounds and electronic manipulations of these sounds.

Curran effectively involved us all in a ritual performance respectfully evoking the past and blending it all into our experience of the moment.  From the beginning as he walked clockwise around the audience and through the complex collage of musical and sonic ideas he created a genuine ritual, a sacred performance if you will.  His music this night was an homage to the past and a celebration of the present.

Curran blowing the ancient shofar (ram's horn) over the undamped piano strings.

Curran blowing the ancient shofar (ram’s horn) over the undamped piano strings.

He signaled the end of the performance as he blew the ancient shofar, an instrument fashioned from a ram’s horn, over the undamped piano strings creating a beautiful sympathetic resonance.

The audience responded with warm applause and appreciation.  Curran, who told me that he began work on this music while he was in residence at nearby Mills College, is clearly embraced and appreciated by the local audience.  He continues his tour and will return to his adopted  home in Rome, Italy but this evening he was clearly one of our own.

Overhead view of the keyboard set  up for the April 11th performance.

Overhead view of the keyboard set up for the April 11th performance.

Enhanced by Zemanta