Blue-collar acting

Bill Engvall

The news release called Christian Wolff "one of the most unheralded composers of our time." And I guess that's true -- I had not even heard of him.

Sunday afternoon's "Music in Time III" was an exploration of Wolff's music, and it was a fascinating hour. Lots of percussion, as one might expect from a pupil of John Cage, but also guitar, harp, trumpet and tuba, used in interesting combinations.

Host John Kennedy explained the aleatoric technique involved in Wolff's work, that is, they are not playing from exact parts, but have instructions and suggestions about what comes next.

This style had a certain vogue among the followers of Cage but is not so much used today. (It also has suffered from parody by Anna Russell and Peter Schickele.) Works in this style need careful preparation, and all these players certainly evidenced that.

"Tuba Song" showcased Aubrey Foard in the 1992 composition for solo tuba. Exploring the extreme ranges of the instrument, his sounds were elegant and smooth, except when the composer dropped into the sub-basement range, where the sound was more like the flatulence of large mammals. Not the performer's fault!

"For 1, 2, or 3 People" composed in 1964 was the earliest of Wolff's works heard. Cellist Marybeth Brown-Plambeck, harpist Sadie Turner and percussionist Eduardo Meneses provided a carefully nuanced account of the score, but I didn't really get it.

"Tilbury 4" ("for any number of instruments") brought back Turner and Foard, plus Danny Rectenwald on guitar, Chriss Venditti on trumpet, and percussionists Trent Leasure and Matthew McKay. The piece used the pairs of strings, brass and percussion in a pleasant soundscape.

Closing the show was "Merce," a phenomenal work for the three percussion players, written in 1993 for Merce Cunningham Dance Company. It was astonishing how much music the players coaxed out of those drums and cymbals!