Friday, March 20, 2015

Charles Wuorinen: Craft and Communication


Charles Wuorinen
Music critic Michael Steinberg famously observed that the music of Charles Wuorinen manages something which perhaps seemed impossible throughout much of the early twentieth century:  a musical reconciliation of the Schoenbergian and Stravinskian compositional traditions. Indeed, in Wuorinen one can hear both the muscular physicality and quick wit of Stravinsky and the structural rigor and systematic consistency of late Schoenberg, both traditions connected and extended into a dynamic new compositional language.

The first word that occurs to me when I think of Wuorinen's music is craft.  Having composed over 260 works, Wuorinen's output is one based in a meticulous study of past styles, and written with painstaking exactitude.  Works like the third Piano Sonata, Arch√¶opteryx, and Epithalamium require a certain diligent focus and calculated intentionality on the part of the performer, but on hearing such works it's difficult not to hear the same diligence on the composer's part.  Wuorinen is famously a composer who wakes each morning and composes for most of the day, and this devotion to craft is clearly audible in his work.  Take for instance, his recent Trio for flute, bass clarinet, and piano (2008), in which snaky, angular lines create tense, constantly transforming contrapuntal webs, which occasionally erupt into sonorous bursts of energy.  The piece virtuosically weaves a narrative through which the ensemble acts both as a trio of independent agents and as a unified body moving together with the agility of a school of fish (listen below).


It is perhaps this devotion to craft that inspired Vera Stravinsky to entrust some of her late husband's unfinished compositional fragments to Wuorinen, which the composer used to construct A Reliquary for Igor Stravinsky (1975), a work which contains both a simulacrum of Stravinsky's late style and a clear expression of Wuorinen's own voice.  Indeed, Wuorinen's voice, both through his singular musical output and his lectures and writings, has been one of the most passionate and eloquent advocates for American serialism, most notably in his 1979 compositional treatise, Simple Composition.

Charles Wuorinen conducting at Guggenheim
After receiving acclaim for a number of early works (including his chamber concertos for 'cello and flute), Wuorinen was appointed to a teaching post at Columbia University in 1964.  There, he worked with the now-legendary RCA Mark II Synthesizer at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center.  Despite being a ground-breaking piece of equipment which is frequently mentioned in histories of electronic music, the Mark II was used in the creation of only a small handful of pieces, one of which was Wuorinen's Time's Encomium, a thirty-minute electronic tour de force which won the composer the 1970 Pulitizer Prize, making Wuorinen the youngest composer at the time to be awarded the honor.  Since then, Wuorinen has received numerous awards and fellowships, including a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, Guggenheim Fellowship, and an induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

One of Wuorinen's significant early achievements was the founding of the Group for Contemporary Music in 1962 with Harvey Sollberger (another JiB faculty composer) and Joel Krosnick.  The first new music ensemble to be based at a university and directed by composers, the GCM quickly received acclaim for its virtuosic performances (including Wuorinen's own skilled piano playing and conducting) and innovative programming (the ensemble premiered significant works by Wolpe, Babbitt, Carter, and Davidovsky).  The  GCM's success inspired the Rockefeller Foundation to fund several similar composer-led ensembles at other universities, including UB's Center for the Creative Associates, an ensemble which regularly included Wuorinen's work in their programming.  The June in Buffalo festival was established in 1975 partly as a way for the Creative Associates to take advantage of Rockefeller funding during the slower summer months, branching out from an innovative ensemble to a widely respected international festival.

Wuorinen speaking at JiB 2013 after receiving his honorary doctorate
We are thrilled that Charles Wuorinen will be joining the June in Buffalo faculty during this anniversary year.  Wuorinen's connection to the festival stretches back many years, and he has been a frequent member of the June in Buffalo faculty.  When David Felder restarted the festival in 1986, Wuorinen was one of a core group of composers who quickly lent their support, and contributed to the festival's revitalization.  At June in Buffalo 2013, Wuorinen was presented with an honorary doctorate by UB, at a brief ceremony preceding a concert that featured a performance of the composer's It Happens Like This by the Slee Sinfonietta.  June in Buffalo has been the site of many exciting performances of Wuorinen's work, including a memorable performance of The Dante Trilogy at June in Buffalo 2003.  This year, we can look forward to the New York New Music Ensemble's performance of New York Notes (1982), and the Meridian Arts Ensemble's performance of Wuorinen's Brass Quintet (read more about the former in last week's interview with Jean Kopperud).

Tom Randle and Daniel Okulitch in Brokeback Mountain
One of Wuorinen's most ambitious projects in recent years has been the 2012 opera, Brokeback Mountain, based on the same Annie Proulx short story that inspired the 2005 film.  The opera, composed for Madrid's Teatro Real, concerns itself with a star-crossed love affair, but unlike traditional operatic subjects, the focus on gay love in an hostile environment (both social and physical—the opera is set in the wild Wyoming mountains) creates a subject matter which, in the composer's words, "has some resonance today, unlike the old-fashioned operatic issues, which are of no interest whatever, in the social context today" (click here to see the composer discuss the opera in detail).  Centered essentially around what Zachary Woolfe calls "a tragedy about the inability to communicate", the opera moves gradually from Schoenbergian sprecstimme to traditional operatic singing, exploring the difficulty of emotional expression.  It seems oddly fitting that an opera about the inability to communicate should be written by a composer with such a strong and fluent compositional voice.  Indeed, it necessitates such a composer, who through years devoted to his craft can eloquently express anything, including the very trials of expression itself.


—Ethan Hayden