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CD Feature/ Gernot Wolfgang: "Common Ground"

img  Tobias

One of the best little anecdotes of the past few months, which I can’t seem to forget, is the moment when my friend Fred Wheeler, who also regularly contributes to tokafi, in his interview with Marcos Fernandes (head of the wonderful accretions label and a pivotal point of the improvisational scene) asked, whether Marcos had ever experienced shivers down his spine from listening to experimental music – and received a laughingly delivered “No!”. It appears as though even the greatest purveryors of sounds away from the mainstream are turning to other styles and genres when looking for emotional stimulation. The same feeling is mirrored by Austrian-born composer Gernot Wolfgang, who now resides in Los Angeles when I talk to him about “Common Ground”: “The thing that I’m still missing in many contemporary music concerts is getting goose bumps from the presence of exciting rhythms, like it happens to me in good jazz concerts.” But how can contemporary composition ever connect with more than just a handful of people, when it lacks this element, which to many is the reason they fell in love with music in the first place? So writing a review on this album also means writing about ways of attracting new audiences and about finding the key to their – yes! – hearts. To Gernot the key has a name and it spells G-R-O-O-V-E-S.

So, what constitutes the groove in the first place? To most, it’s the inexplicable part, the moment, when a “simple beat” turns into something bigger, better, brighter, when it suddenly lifts off into the sky and melts into the clouds. The groove is what makes you jump up, quit thinking, move your body and “shake that thing”. Yet this mighty tool, which has been ubiquitious in charts and clubs all over the planet and, to a certain degree, even in the concert halls, has been noticeable absent from 21st century “serious” music. Why? “That’s an interesting question which invites a multitude of answers”, Gernot says, “But I think at the core of the issue is, that for a long time a large majority within the classical and contemporary concert music world - conductors, musicians, critics, academics, record executives, radio hosts and the like - viewed groove-oriented music (like pop, rock & roll, jazz and world music) as inferior. Their dislike of the perceived simplicity in melody, harmony, form and rhythm translated into the exclusion of virtual all elements - including grooves - from contemporary concert music. Groove-oriented music was simply considered not to be intellectually high-brow enough and was only accepted in pops programs.” Still, the inspiration for “Common Ground” stems from various sources and they don’t always have to do with Jazz or Pop music alone. Gernot openly admits his admiration for the work of Lutoslawski, Penderecki, Britten, Webern, John Adams, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Markus Lindberg (but disputes them being a big influence on this particular album), while some hear Stravinsky and Shostakovich in the pieces (on the other hand: Who doesn’t hear Stravinsky and Shostakovich in 90% of contemporary music?). And yet it might be interesting to shortly have a look at another archetypical musician of the last half-century, who probably emancipated the groove more than anyone else to understand Wolfgang’s point: James Brown

With plenty of scandals and about 100 “Comeback” albums to his credit over the last few years, his real achievments have been hidden from the public’s eye a little bit. What Brown did in his glory days, though, was nothing less than turning the axis and to not only use grooves as a byproduct, but to justify them as a means of their own. There was no longer a separation between these elements – the groove effectively constituted the composition and vocals, melodies and harmonies turned into factors of arrangement. “Common Ground” never takes things this far, yet there are instances, when the music suddenly breaks into an irresistable maelstrom, when these small-scale ensembles made-up of some of the finest musicians from just about anywhere seem to forget themselves and dive headlong into a state of a continous rush of hormones, swinging and hollering and forcing your body into submission. The physical reaction is incredible and immediate and one secretly wishes for things to go like this forever. They never do but there is a very good reason for that and it brings us closer to the true intentions behind the album.

For it is not a coup d’etat Gernot Wolfgang is looking for. He knows exactly that there is a parallel between grooves and establishing new paradigms in culture. Just as much as one can learn working with grooves by “constantly practicing and playing them” (which demistifies them considerably, without taking a grain away from their amazing strength), the world wants gradual changes, not superimposed revolutions. That’s why he calls his music “Groove-oriented Chamber Music”, a term which lends slightly more emphasis on its traditional component than its “progressive” factor, and that is also why he purposely interweaves the “new” with the “old”, as he points out himself: “One of my colleagues, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra principal clarinetist Gary Gray, once said to me that he considers my music to be ‘2/3 concert music and 1/3 jazz’. His remark made me realize that if you write anything at all (in my case grooves) that does not match the musicians’ background, you have to at the same time be sure to provide a comfort zone for them where they can feel musically at home. And that comfort zone should make up more than 50% of the musical material, better more like 2/3, as Gary verbalized. If the familiar aspect of your music drops below 50%, you’re putting the musicians in a position of insecurity which will likely result in less than convincing performances, definitely not a desirable situation."

This does not imply, though, that “Groove-oriented Chamber Music” is a weak compromise or an intellectual abstraction. Rather, this music is in a constant flux – it effortlessly switches from jazz to classical, from the “popular” to the “serious”, from the tangible to the mysteriously opaque, from the daylight to the shades of midnight, from the fully orchestrated to the solitary, from passages of full flow into infinitely quiet moments of time standing still. This is why Wolfgang has managed to create a distinct handwriting, despite using well-known vocabulary, this is why his style is always surprising, despite adhering to a certain formula and that is also what represents the biggest difficulty: “The transitions from the beat-oriented to the textural passages as well as maintaining a flow over a compositon with a lot of stop-and-go are indeed one of the primary compositional challenges in this regard. It can be solved however by giving each transitional musical element just the right amount of space”. And there is certainly a lof of space in the relaxed ambiance of “Jazz & Coctails” (dominated by bleeding string breaths as well as Robert Thies’ shimmering piano cascades and one of the many tracks inspired by their creator’s interest in movies and visual motives) or the closing 8-minute long deep dream fantasy “Night Shift” for solo piano.

Apart from the already mentioned visual cues, a muse for Wolfgang has been his wife Judith Farmer, who is an instrumentalist herself and the main reason why the bassoon makes an unprecedented amount of appearances, both as a soloist in the sturdy “Dual Identity” or integrated into unusual groups – such as on the tripart title piece, which sees her and cellist Armen Ksajikian engage in various functional and emotional juxtapositions. All of this and the fact that three works were written especially for this CD lend both an exotic feeling, as well as an air of closeness to the album.

Whether it will in fact change the musical landscape and reestablish grooves in contemporary concert practise will have to be seen, as even the coposer admits that his performance possibilities have up to now been restricted: “My music often gets programmed by established series with a built-in audience in which the younger generations are still a minority . (...) At this point all I can say is that I get very good feedback about my pieces after performances (many of which take place in the LA area, so I can actually attend), and yes, some people have pointed out the rhythms as a positive factor ...” But what it does provide for is the necessary amount of fun, excitment and direct emotional impact when listening to modern music once more - it’s just like hearing “Le Sacre du Printemps” for the first time once again. And we can claim without hesitation, that after listening to “Common Ground” you will be able to asnwer the question whether you’ve ever experienced shivers down your spine when listening to experimental music with a full-bodied “Yes!”.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Gernot Wolfgang
Homepage: Albany Records

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