The wulf in downtown Los Angeles was the venue for a performance of the compositions of Colin Wambsgans on Saturday night, March 21, 2015. The cozy spaces of the Wulf filled up with a friendly crowd ready to experience experimental music and field recordings in a concert titled wherever you are, there you’re at.
The first section of the concert consisted of three pieces described in the program notes as “text scores, mostly in unison.” The structure of these was similar – a stopwatch is used to set ten second intervals, followed by the start of a phrase with all the players in unison. For the first piece, 55 Things (2013), each of the various players to continued to play independently for the number of times indicated in the text score. The instrumentation was varied and diverse, consisting of everything from a soprano saxophone, an accordion, a number of toy percussion items, a large rat trap and what seemed to be the contents of several kitchen drawers.
Each passage began in unison with a wonderful roar of sound that gradually lessened and changed in timbre and texture as the various players finished the sequence of their assigned soundings – all in the span of just a few seconds. The approximately equal mixture of traditional acoustic instruments and found objects produced a unique texture and feel to each passage as it was played. Sometimes the effect was alarming and chaotic and at other times more familiar and musical. Every ten seconds the listener was presented with new and instantaneous decisions about how to deal with the timbre, textures and emotions that were being broadcast. Interestingly for the listener, the brain would often impose a musical context over the combination of sounds that were heard. 55 Things is an intriguing piece that challenges the listener’s instinctive discrimination between sound and music, ultimately sharpening and extending the limits of our aural perceptions.
The second piece on the program was Five* Minutes for Percussion Quartet (2014), and this consisted of a more traditional array of drums, gongs, triangles and wood blocks. The stopwatch was again employed to set the ten second intervals, but just prior to the unison entrances one of the players would conduct a tempo for the others to follow. In this way a more familiar musical sound and pulse was produced and this acted to enhance the listener’s organization of the sound into a musical perception. The phrases lasted only a few seconds, but they had a strong feel of familiarity, like hearing a fragment of something you knew, but couldn’t quite identify. The use of the more familiar instruments and gestures in Five* Minutes for Percussion Quartet made for a somewhat more accessible entry into Wambsgans methods.
Soft Targets (2015) was next and this was scored for piano, guitar and several percussion pieces, all led by a violinist who kept time for the ten second intervals. As before, the players entered in unison but for this piece there was just a single note played or struck. When the piano was included the chord that was sounded by the ensemble has a strong musical feel – otherwise the percussion, guitar and violin – playing her notes pizzicato – tended to produce a sharp, short chord that dissipated somewhat more rapidly than would have been ideal given the acoustics of the room. Even so, there were detectable feelings of tension at times and a more optimistic sound at other times. As the piece progressed the pitches gradually rose and some of the chords took on a questioning feel, while others seemed to be offering an answer. The chords could be delicate and ethereal, but also sharp and edgy. Soft Targets was perhaps the more structured and intentional of the works in this concert, but the short duration of each chord made for challenging listening and inevitably the outside noise that floated in occasionally obscured the hearing.
Another variant of Wambsgans composition technique was heard last year at Boston Garden employing an ensemble of horns and strings that produced chords of sustained – and powerful – tones. This arrangement delivered a somewhat less ambiguous sound than some of the more subtle instances in this concert at the Wulf. The three variations heard on this occasion were all interesting explorations of an experimental style that offers the observant listener much to examine.
After an intermission an extended field recording was heard titled wherever you are, there you’re at (2014-2015). This began with the sound of a soft rain falling, water running in a downspout and a whistling tea kettle – as if this was the beginning of the day. Presently outside sounds were heard – the voices of neighborhood kids, a jet in the distance and more street sounds. All of this gave the impression of embarking on some sort of journey and more clues came in the form of vehicle sounds, train station announcements and a busking clarinet player. The audio-only track tends to focus the concentration of the listener, and the game of trying to determine the destination continued as the piece progressed. There was a stretch of hearing a distant trumpet player practicing and some animated street conversation in a foreign language. At the end of the recording, the lively street conversations were accompanied by the chirping of birds, conjuring an affectionate equivalence. wherever you are, there you’re at invites the audience to listen carefully in order to assess the location and intentions of the unseen traveler while enjoying the rich visual detail constructed thereby in the mind’s eye.
The performers in this concert were:
The next event at the wulf will be on March 29, 2015 featuring the music of Powerdove and Ulrich Krieger.