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Wednesday, February 15, 2006
Evan Johnson On the Record: The Man You Love to Hate
Charles Wuorinen – Trio for Bass Instruments; Horn Trio; Horn Trio Continued; Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano; Double Solo for Horn Trio; Trombone Trio
The Group for Contemporary Music
Naxos 8.559264

Regular readers of my posts and comments on Sequenza21 (and I know you are legion!) will know of my distaste for the term “academic” as applied to composers or musical styles. The assumption that composers who teach, or who have advanced degrees in music, are as a result bound (by what? tradition? pride? ignorance?) to a particular sound or a particular precompositional device is hopelessly outdated, if ever it had any validity at all.

That having been said, I know what people mean by “academic music.” They mean a sort of sterile, passionless atonality that seems to exist to spin notes and rhythms without any particular regard for sound, instrumental technique, affect, or impact. They mean, in essence, bad music. That bad music exists, in all styles and traditions, is not in doubt; that anyone sets out to create it is another proposition altogether.

Charles Wuorinen seems to be a favorite target of those who decry the pernicious influence of this “academic music.” He has advanced degrees from prestigious institutions, a comfortable academic position (although not as centrally powerful as all that), and a reputation for intellectualism and uncompromising aesthetic criteria of purity and rigor. He is uptown all the way, in other words. At its best, though, his music is not just rigorous and thoroughly structured but also passionate, impetuous, virile and ultimately breathtaking. Those looking for evidence to absolve Wuorinen of the vague charges of sterile academism need look no farther than most of the works on this disc. While the unrelenting thorniness here may be off-putting at first, this is music that grows on you, and quickly, with its addictive energy and adrenaline-fueled power.

If there was any doubt that Wuorinen is a prolific composer, here are 65 minutes of his music, including several substantial works, all composed between 1981 and 1985 – and these are only his pieces for exactly three instruments. These thorny, macho, consistently difficult pieces are performed by the Group for Contemporary Music—an ensemble that Wuorinen co-founded—with enthusiasm and absolute mastery. For the most part, the music deserves the virtuoso attention it is given.

The weakest work is the first, the Trio for Bass Instruments (bass trombone, tuba and double bass, to be precise). The small turning radius of Wuorinen’s motivic technique results here in music that comes across as meandering rather than capricious, formless rather than impulsive. The music lumbers, as it is bound to do, but whatever energy is formed by the resistance of the elephantine instruments quickly dissipates, and the result is a curiosity: the answer to the question “what do these three instruments sound like together?” but little more.

The contrast with the next tracks, comprising the Horn Trio and the Horn Trio Continued (a separable second movement), could not be greater; this is the best Wuorinen has to offer. Where the Trio for Bass Instruments seems weak, aimless and undercooked, the Horn Trios are powerful, thrilling pieces, combining brilliant horn writing with an energetic, noisy violin part and a contrastingly quicksilver piano. Here the instrumental thinking is clear, the timbral combinations are hard-won but magical, and the convulsive rhythms slap you silly from the first bar. The form is convincing but also quirky and full of unexpected gems (see the end of the first trio, which comes skitteringly to rest after twelve bruising minutes on an unexpectedly gentle E major-add 6/9 straight out of Messiaen). This pair of works is a serious contender for the title of third-best horn trio ever; since Brahms and Ligeti have the first two slots sewn up, that is no small honor.

And so it goes with the rest of the disc: Wuorinen’s music sometimes fails to convince me that he is thinking beyond notes and rhythms towards an ideal shaped as much in sound and instrumental practice as in pitch combinations, but here there is no doubt. The Trombone Trio, for the tricky ensemble of trombone, percussion and piano, makes fascinating use of its timbral capabilities, including one of the best uses of vibraphone vibrato I have heard recently; the Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano wrenches both lyricism and energetic strain from that reticent ensemble; and the Double Solo for Horn Trio (so called because the horn and violin both have soloistic parts throughout) is as powerful as it is knotty. The concentration of the material is fierce and the motivic workings involved, but, everywhere but the Trio for Bass Instruments, the energy is also irresistible.

There is a fair amount of Wuorinen on disc, but this collection is more convincing overall than any other that I have heard. With the release of Feldman’s String Quartet #1, a forthcoming Babbitt disc, and this collection of Wuorinen’s chamber music (all performed by the Group for Contemporary Music, and all re-releases of recordings originally on the Koch label), 2006 looks to be a good year for Naxos’ American Classics line, a sign that the promising but isolated precedents of Cage, Ives, Carter and Earl Kim have not been totally washed out by the more common middle-of-the-road repertoire. May this trend continue.


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