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Subject(s): ,     
March 21, 2006

Weekly Music Reviews: March 20 - 26
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Erling Wold and Modern American Art Music - Part 2

by Mark S. Tucker


This closes the two-part Wold coverage; see:

...for the first segment.


Back to the Stage, Part 2

Meanwhile, Ernst’s ghost refused to languish. The same year as Queer, the Austrian version of “A Little Girl Dreams” appeared in Klagenfurt on July 20, 2001, translated to Die Nacht Wird Kommen. The stunning San Francisco fleshing was now transmuted not merely into German narrative but also clangored into a rendering that spiked bad blotter acid through an already paranoid Orwellian nightmare, becoming far more autarchic, almost Kafkan, and starker than the American version, which had itself been a garish, claustrophobic, anarchic, gaudy hurly-burly deliriously overwhelming in its dynamics.

The Austrian version became an allegiant of Murnau, the father of German expressionist theater and imputed inventor of modern cinema, with the band growing occasionally clatterous, almost obstreporously Balinesian in spots, echoing and clashing in the small hall, intensifying the sense of impending disaster. The cast was minimal (three actors) and, so, with the inherent problems in such sparsity anticipated, film snippets ran alongside the mummery, often grabbing center stage. This, however, didn’t solve the quandary. Spontanette, the “heroine”, practically a corpse, was highly restricted in movement, drowning in visuals, her plight becoming one of self-delusion rather than the victimcy intended. Despite shifts and dramatic tweaks, the staging didn’t enjoy the successes of the American version. Still, the entire idea had been affective enough to be invited to far shores and what could be done was done, the superior S.F. predecessor standing as a silent but hectoring parent.

Burroughs to Ernst to...the Bible?

Sooner or later, ya gotta tackle religion and politics with some degree of seriousness - operatic work just ain’t kosher less’n ya do. As Wold had quite re-opened the new a-hole Ernst had torn Catholicism in “A Little Girl Dreams”, it was time for a modicum of...piety? In 2003’s Sub Pontio Pilato, the poor Roman bastard who’d been saddled with the Christ’s public trial, Pontius Pilate, along with his perhaps-allegorical suicide (other historio-myths run equally that he was beheaded by Nero, banished to Vienne, converted to Xianity, etc.), became the subject of James Bisso’s libretto, written in English and contemplative of the ancient regent’s dilemma, how he would be remembered, whether or not his treatment was fair, and, in Bisso’s teeming mind, much more. The staging was powerful and gathered acclaim from the press while the 2-CD version obviously missed the choreography and visual pacing, coming off a bit flat.

The opera opens jarringly, with a night-porteress slitting the official’s wrists without so much as a “How d’ya do?”. This is not good manners. She commences the vocals in a clear melodious refrain while Pilate (John Duykers) first silently frets in resigned shock then encants a curious reaction, singing of the “pleasure of the pain” that he “shall savor, the fleshly pain”. Behind them, a mini-orchestra wafts out Wold’s trademark enchantingly Impressionistic serial minimal constructions, players half-opaqued by corruscating sheets of fiber-optic fairy light dancing about in suggested masses and motion, but the interplay between the singers quickly becomes disturbingly vampiric, metaphorical subtexts reaching deeply into the mentality of rule and its aberrations. Duykers’ face is a complex of warring emotions while an angeline chorus of manga-type schoolgirls first paints masochistically sweet ambiences then kneels closely by the marble suicide bath, voyeurizing the morbid drama.

Pilate dies and the opera really begins. The spirits of Herod & Da Boyz emerge to confront the Roman they indirectly caused to perish, concurrently escalating the two-tiered sonic webwork, weaving layers atop the orchestra. Pilate, however, slips off-stage while the audience is fascinated, to re-emerge in Caesarically altered cop garb, complete with shades, seig heiling standards bearing zen/taoistic life circles. Furthering his id revelations, the suicide soon adopts Il Duce’s postures and demagogic bonhommie, Herod & Co. milling about with the chorus, refiguring their places in the rapidly transubstantiating psychodrama. It only gets weirder from there.

In many ways, Sub Pontio extends Peter Greenaway’s kaleidoscopic Prospero’s Books and Richard Loncraine’s extremely unsettling re-visioning of Richard III. Publication of the opera occurred under the composer’s own imprint, so the sonic documentation doesn’t perfectly expose the piece’s glorious subtleties though the visuals, if you can grab the chance to see them, stunningly compensate. All this is merely more reason Wold is needful of oceans of exposure to, and the patronage of, mega-labels. When I wrote for national print-zines, out of the hundreds of discs I critiqued, only he and Helmut Lachenmann (for his diabolically brilliant incidentalist neo-opera Das Madchen mit den Schwefelholzern [2004, ECM]), ever attained perfect review scores and ECM would also be the perfect home for the San Franciscan.

All this, naturally, lends a bit of anticipatory fever, speculating upon how the upcoming works will be staged. Mass would appear to be perhaps a solemn affair. Pilate, after all, was somewhat subdued, in view of past phantasmagorias, but then little is formulaic in Wold’s catalogue. Tryptichimera stars John Duykers again in solo context and will reflect discordancy in gender roles, a multi-metaphor from the mythical chimera’s several heads, a chance to run the guest passes on identification in, it can only be sardonically guessed, the most abstract ruminations. But 24/7, an Erling Wold Sex Comedy should, given its nomination, provide salacious relief from the heavier angst and crises so otherwise staple in his philosophically oriented materials. Then again...

Obscure but Plentiful

In recent years, Jon Jost has become so enamored of the composer’s work that he’s taken to using him as frequently as can be managed. If you’ve seen La Lunga Ombra (The Long Shadow) (2005), you’ve caught the latest, but the earlier collaborations mentioned above are still viewable through art houses and hopefully specialist cinema sales services as well. These complement 2004’s Homecoming and 1997’s London Brief.

The Village Voice has dubbed Wold "the Eric Satie of Berkeley surrealist / minimalist electro-artrock", an appropriately convoluted homage, while marvellingly hailed previews of ongoing efforts have received sanctuary in respected magazines like the Leonardo Music Journal, Tellus, and Just Intonation Network. Beyond these aural endeavors, Wold has published technical and artistic articles in many publications, also issuing several books. He holds a half-dozen patents in musical signal processing and sports a doctorate from UC Berkeley, where he’s been a signal processing and music synthesis researcher.

Though he experiences difficulties lashing himself to the fickle tastes of the American consumption machine, luminaries haven’t been slow to recognize his commanding adventurousness. The Paul Dresher Ensemble tackled Little Girl back in ‘00 and Palindrome Dance of Nurnberg recently presented Blind Liebe, with a return engagement promised for 2007. On top of all that, Marja Mutru, the Finnish pianist, premiered some of Wold’s solo works, and a recent link-up 'twixt the composer and the Deborah Slater Dance Theater and Thom Blum has been established.

I mentioned in Part 1 that you can download full versions of a cornucopia of his magnificent work for are you still sitting around just reading this column?



Mark S. Tucker, a critic, has written for numerous national newsrack magazines and websites over the past 20 years, as well as for this forum. He can be reached at This article is originally published at Copyright Mark S. Tucker, but permission is granted for reprint in print, email, blog, or web media so long as this credit is attached.

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