Composer Scott Wollschleger: Painting with the Right Notes
An interview by Ivan Ilic.
I first came across Scott Wollschleger as I browsed the Project Schott New York website. Instantly, I knew that his Music Without Metaphor was the right piece for a new CD I was preparing. Wollschleger had recorded several of his solo piano works on an upright piano that had clearly seen better days. But the pieces, and his playing, were so musical. It seems redundant to describe a composer that way, but listening to his music one becomes aware of how rare that raw communicative gift is.
Beyond Wollschleger’s homemade recordings, it is difficult to get a feel for him as a person, except for his occasional irony-tinged tweets (a recent example: “Marina Abramović is my mom”). There is only one long, digressive interview with him online by another young composer. The basics are: Wollschleger was born in Pennsylvania in 1980, he lives in Brooklyn, he has a day job working at Schott publishing, and he used to organize contemporary music concerts in New York City. To remedy this dearth of information, I offered to interview him, and the result is below.
Ivan Ilic: Your Music Without Metaphor sounds to me like a 7-minute piece in the late style of Morton Feldman. Do you agree?
Scott Wollschleger: Totally.
I.I.: How did you write Music Without Metaphor?
S.W.: The piece comes from a lonely feeling I have at the piano sometimes. Just between me and the piano. It’s very personal; I’m sure you know this feeling too. I wrote the opening gesture first, and then kept rewriting that gesture with slight variations, expecting it to lead me to another idea. But after sketching that first gesture so many times I realized that the iterations taken together could be the basis of the piece. The contrasting material is from another sketch I was working on.
I had the music spread around my work area, and I played through different arrangements of the material. After some time I realized there was no perfect way to order the material, so I made the final version of the piece in a formal, almost classical way. There would be two main ideas and then at one point, in the middle of the piece, a totally new thing would happen, but just for a moment and never return.
I.I.: Your manuscript scores, including Music Without Metaphor, are beautiful; they remind me of Japanese calligraphy. How does this visual aspect relate to your music?
S.W.: The visceral beauty is very important to me. Something must be communicated via the look of the score. I love looking at music on the page. Reading a score is like a form of meditation. I also love sight-reading. I once had a piano teacher who told me I’d only be able to play as well as I could sight-read. That turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy: I haven’t memorized a piece since I was 19. This is not ideal as a performer, but as a curious composer it’s fine. My fiancée says I don’t play the piano, but I interact with it. I think this is an accurate statement.
There is a purely aesthetic aspect to reading a score that is undeniable. I’ve noticed that I play beautifully engraved music better than poorly engraved music. It’s a superficial criterion, but I do believe that if a score looks beautiful, the potential for musical beauty is higher than if it were a dumpy score. I work in music publishing, and I look at scores all day. There really is an intuitive feeling with music that appears beautiful. This can be dangerous because music is not about the visual. Hearing, in some ways, is the opposite of seeing. But the two come together, in a sense, in notation. Part of the performer’s role is to feel the aesthetic qualities of the printed music and harness these qualities into a larger interpretation of the work. The way something looks is a fraction of the total interpretation process, but it still should be part of it. There is no doubt that a kind of analog communication takes place when we look at notated music. Think of Bach’s manuscripts: we see a river of flowing notes. Seeing Bach’s handwritten manuscripts has affected me, and I play Bach more “flowingly,” or something, since I’ve seen his handwriting. There is a correspondence between the beauty on the page and the feeling the performer brings to the work.
Music Without Metaphor was incredibly meditative to engrave. Using ink to write music is a spiritual practice. When you fuck up you have to live with it and even come to love it.
I.I.: Which composers do you feel close to, or identify with?
S.W.: I like composers whose works feel “constructed” or “homemade” and are at the same time full of feeling, with a strong poetic sense. Fragments are often more interesting than a complete work, or a composer’s oeuvre taken as a whole. If pressed, I’d prefer to say I feel close to the whole of Western classical music, as if it could be considered one monstrous blob of a composer.
I.I.: Can you give me a few examples of these fragments?
S.W.: There are many, and they may be too personal for others to relate to. A few that come to mind are the development section of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, the opening of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, the circle progressions in Schumann’s Kreisleriana, the second cadenza of Ravel’s left hand concerto, and the wrong note moment in the first movement of Sibelius’s 5th Symphony. Others include the final moments of the 4th movement of Bartok’s 6th string quartet (also every appearance of the mesto theme) the trumpet solo in Webern’s Symphony, the choral chord right before the first flute solo in Luigi Nono’s Das Atmende Klarsein (1980/83), the moment the voice sings normal words in Feldman’s Three Voices (1982)…
I.I.: Do you listen to music often?
S.W.: No, not often. My way of listening is to play though music at the piano. It’s much more engaging for me to listen while playing rather than passive listening. I have a huge appetite for classical music. As I mentioned, I love sight-reading, especially works by obscure composers. For instance I’ve recently read through Domenico Alberti’s sonatas. They’re awkward but super charming. I love getting a sense of “what Mozart didn’t do”. Sometimes knowing what was rejected in history is just as interesting as knowing what was successful. Another recent discovery has been Sibelius’s piano music. I love it – it’s so spacious. Isaac Albeniz and Agustín Barrios Mangore are also high on my list. In a way I have bad taste, and I’m okay with that.
I.I.: Do you feel guilty for liking music that isn’t considered “good” by some higher authority? Is there pressure to conform?
S.W.: Yes, the pressure to conform is real. Classical music has this thing with pedigree and conformity. I like the Jeff Koons approach: I don’t see a reason to feel guilty for liking something, despite how kitsch, bad taste, or “low” it might be. We have to be honest with ourselves and accept our “guilty pleasures”. There is something liberating, even life-affirming, in this idea, the idea that we have nothing to hide, nothing to fear when it comes to art. Also, the more we find what matters to us, in a really deep way, the more diverse and rich the cultural landscape is.
I.I.: On my new CD, The Transcendentalist, I have placed your music next to miniatures by Alexander Scriabin.
S.W: I love Scriabin’s piano music, especially the shorter works. Copland said that Scriabin failed at larger forms, but nailed it with the miniatures. Scriabin’s early Sonatas hold up well, but after the 5th Sonata the larger forms don’t work as well, maybe due to the breakdown of the tonal scheme. But Scriabin clearly broke through to the other side. It’s just that when he got there, he didn’t know what to do. I think we have to forgive him. Ultimately, it’s more interesting to concentrate on Scriabin’s extremely creative, even transcendent approach to music, and to disregard his conservative habits and the formal failings that come with that.
It was actually Scriabin’s music that led me to become a composer. It came after hearing his 3rd sonata. I remember feeling the depth of his harmony in the core of my being. I still feel an erotic thing with his work, and I find his piano music physically pleasurable to play. His miniatures seem to paint a picture of a mood, or a passing moment. I think the sense of color comes from the harmony. It’s vivid; I always immediately see color with his music.
I.I.: You’re synaesthetic, like Scriabin.
S.W.: Yes, and I actually didn’t know that Scriabin was a synaesthete too until years after I discovered his music. This further affirmed the deep connection I felt, and still feel, with his work.
I.I.: What is the balance between form and content in your own music?
S.W.: Earle Brown said that John Cage’s music, “fills a form” and that Brown’s “formed a filling”. I’m more like Brown in this regard: content determines form. But ideally, the two should be interconnected so that the content reveals the form and the form reveals the content. I agree with Adorno’s idea that form is determined by what is inherent in the musical material. But at the same time I think part of the playful aspect of composing is undermining this.
I.I.: Morton Feldman talked about Toru Takemitsu having “favorite notes”, a phrase that could be applied to Feldman himself. Could it be applied to you as well?
S.W.: Absolutely. Usually a work is only about a few notes. Once I find the right notes it’s as though I can paint with them or something like that. But finding the notes, and their relationship to the “wrong” notes, is a big part of the process too. The word “notes” is a little misleading because timbre is half the picture.
I.I.: Why do you think Feldman became more comfortable with longer pieces? Is it something about his ‘late-style’ language?
S.W.: Yes. I hear Feldman the way I hear Beckett. There’s something meaningless in the repetition, but it takes on a life of its own. The process is a very personal experience. God knows how long it’s going to be, you just have to do it. And it’s both stupid and brilliant at the same time. It’s also brave. Feldman took a leap of faith on the duration question and arrived at something new. That kind of leap is something we all need to do.
I.I.: Have you had analogous ‘leaps’ in your own development?
S.W.: I like to think so. If anything I’m going backwards, towards a kind of music that stems from very deep inside; a kind of music that is not me “trying to do something”, but music that is organically already there.
I.I.: As a young American composer, what does John Cage’s legacy mean to you?
S.W.: Cage’s pioneering originality is inspiring. His idea that any sound phenomenon is music rings true, especially in an age of electronic and recorded music. I also have a nerdy interest in Cage, related to my interest in Satie, and the ideas they shared about duration and form (I’m thinking of early Cage). The Satie/Cage idea that duration can be a primary formal element is very striking. I think my interest in formal disorientation and disproportionality is somehow Satie/Cage-inspired. But Cage-adulation has become something of a fetish, so part of me says fuck Cage, we should kill the father, etc.
I.I.: How much do you “decide” the direction in which your aesthetic evolves?
S.W.: As a composer living in New York I’m exposed to many different kinds of music and composers. Each of us has to decide his or her artistic direction, but it’s also partly intrinsic. I’m a critical, introspective, existentialist guy from a kind of super-normal American upbringing, so my music reflects this, and is even critical of it. I don’t consciously decide my direction, but, somehow, I do play an active role in shaping it. It often comes down to the amount of risk one is willing to take.
I.I.: It’s interesting that you mention your “normal” American background. Does being a composer in America today imply leaving part of that normality behind? An Argentine friend who lives in the US once told me that he draws blank stares when he tells people he’s a composer. Do you feel a similar cultural disconnect?
S.W.: Definitely. But I still manage to be “normal”. I have a home, a full time job, a good relationship, friends, I love donuts and sex, etc. But yes, I had to leave a lot behind. This is a good thing. I think we should all leave things behind. I don’t think personal identity needs to be fixed. We can change, and this is a good thing. I left a lot behind when I moved to New York. But even here I find there are plenty of blank stares to go around.
If anything, I’m moving towards trying to not get blank stares. I want people to relate to my music. I want the most normal person in America to hear what I do and feel something from it. I don’t believe in the ivory-tower thing. Artists have to reach out and connect with people. And this doesn’t mean conforming; it means opening yourself up to others.
1 The Transcendentalist, Heresy Records (June 2014), also includes works by Scriabin, Cage, and Feldman.
2 Agustín Barrios Mangoré (1885 - 1944), a Paraguayan guitarist and composer.
3 Synaesthesia is a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.
4 “Takemitsu…shocked everybody because they wanted to know how he got his notes, and he answered, “I have favorite notes and those are the only notes I use.” And the whole idea of a composer just having favorite notes blew their mind! [Laughs]” from Morton Feldman in Middelburg: Words on Music (2008) MusikTexte, page 86.
Ivan Ilic s a Serbian-American pianist based in France since 2001. His album 22 Chopin Studies for the left hand by Leopold Godowsky was a Top 5 CD of Classique News (FR) and MDR Figaro (DE), and CD of the week of The Daily Telegraph (UK) and Radio 3 - Vltava (CZ).
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